Richard Brody on Independent Films

Richard Brody has a very interesting article in a recent New Yorker where he weighs in on an in-the-media argument between Robert Downey, Jr. and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (the director of Birdman) on the relative value of superhero films vs.independent films. Brody praises the mythologizing values of the superhero film, while also pointing out how their mega-budgets means more studio interference, and less chance for a singular artistic vision to shine through.

But then he adds warnings about the dangers of the independent film too.

“… there’s a decadent side to independence…and there’s an aesthetic failing that follows as well: the shibboleth of the self-effacing director who gives his or her performers the space in which to shine, and who, in fact, makes films in which the actors are compelled to do the bulk of the work. The special mediocrity of independent films is the lack of direction and of production alike”

This is what I have been getting at it many recent posts, how easy it is to lose sight of the fact that it is important for art to offer something true, and that the style of the film – the collision between what the filmmaker is trying to say and how the film says it – and the experience of the audience – what the audience experiences during the film and what they take away from it – is more important than the mechanics of plot, or as Brody points out, even the performances themselves.

The whole article is worth reading.

Advice for Robert Downey, Jr. in The New Yorker.



Filmmaking 101: Every Shot Answers a Question

A quick editing tip I sometimes find useful when I’m stuck trying to decide how to edit a scene: Sometimes it’s helpful to think of every shot as answering a question set up by the previous shot.

A simple example: let’s say you have a character who is surprised by something unexpected, and you need to decide whether to show the character’s surprise first and then cut to the thing she sees, or the other way around, show the unexpected thing first and then the character’s reaction to it.

In such a situation, try asking yourself which question you want the audience to ask: What is the character seeing that caused her reaction? Or, how is the character going to react when she sees it? This should help clarify the solution for you.

In The Art of Dreaming, when Maya wakes up and finds The Insect Queen in the room with her, I realized I wanted neither. I realized I wanted the audience to see at the exact moment that Maya does, so I cut to the shot of The Insect Queen on the exact frame that Maya’s eyeline lands on her.



A Nonprofit Model for Independent Films?

Nick Toti has an interesting article over at Indiewire.com suggesting that independent filmmakers should start using a nonprofit model to raise money for their projects. When I first transitioned from experimental dance-theater to filmmaking, I was struck how films had developed a different funding model from the other arts. Whereas most arts groups fund themselves as Nonprofit Organizations (501(c)(3) status under the IRS code), films have historically been funded as for-profit ventures.

This has a lot to do with the expense of making films, of course. It takes millions of dollars to fund and market even a low budget production, whereas a few thousand dollars may go a long way toward funding a performance of a small dance company. So films have developed a system where studios fund their massive budgets from investors looking for a return on their investments and where the massive hit film can help fund the market misses.

Also, of course, the immense payback potential for a hit movie has made films an attractive prospect for many investors. And the historical predominance of films as America’s premier popular entertainment medium has also contributed to relegating most films to commercial, for-profit ventures, thought of as commerce first, and art second.

But as film production costs and marketing costs have soared, the big studios have become less and less interested in funding small, risky films that don’t have the chance of a big payoff. They’re more interested in tent pole pictures and franchises that have a bigger likelihood of being a financial success.

And having a for-profit model for filmmaking has meant that individual filmmkakers generally can’t sustain a career if they don’t consistently make a profit in the market place with their films, a burden that nonprofit arts groups don’t necessarily face. Very few Performance Arts groups could survive if they had to rely on ticket sales for income (including such mainstream civic bulwarks as world-class symphonies, ballet, and opera companies in major cities). Tax-exempt donations have been crucial to the survival of arts in the U.S.

What will it take to allow filmmakers to successfully move to non-profit model? Even with the inexpensiveness of digital production, it can still take a couple of hundred thousand dollars to produce even a micro-budget feature film, still a daunting amount of money to raise.

I’ve long been an advocate of re-thinking our aesthetics to move away from the mainstream Hollywood aesthetics of films, to produce movies that are both less expensive to make and more personal. For those growing up now with an iPhone in their pocket, this is happening quite naturally. This is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker, but we must rise to the challenge of seeing art and the world in new ways, and not simply repeating tired (and expensive) styles, genres and working models.

If we can do that, the time might be right for some filmmakers, like most other artists in our culture, to turn to Nonprofit Organizations for funding. This could mean an individual forming a Nonprofit for his or her own work, but more likely a production company setting itself up as a Nonprofit. Alternatively, films productions could raise money through another Nonprofit that acts as an umbrella agency, (called Fiscal Sponsorship). Currently, Fractured Atlas offers that service for filmmakers.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the need for hard work, dedication, and perseverance. That will always be necessary.

Why Nonprofits are the Future of Indie Film

Film As Cheap As a Pencil and Paper

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

The Feature Film That Blew Everyone Away at Sundance Was Shot on an iPhone 5s

Fractured Atlas



Weaving A Different Magic, Part 2

The obsession with the “rules of screenwriting” that I described in two previous blog posts (this one and this one), can be expected, of course, in books about screenwriting by screenwriters. This reflects a natural and understandable tendency on the part of screenwriters to think of their work as the primary basis of film. But this is a little myopic on the part of the writers, as if the final movie is simply a translation of their work into a different medium.

The screenplay is only one element that goes into a movie, and is no more determinative of the power of the final movie than other elements, like the acting, the cinematography, or the director’s style and choices. Filmmaking as an art is not about accurately translating the story of the screenplay to the screen. It’s about using the screenplay as one element among others to create a separate and new work of art that can certainly have different and greater artistic goals than the screenplay’s narrative.

The non-narrative aspects of the film experience are as important to the art of film as the story. We must always think about the experience of the audience, what emotional or mental states the audience goes through, the journey they go on, which as Werner Herzog pointed out, is different from the journey the characters go on. This is created as much by the style of the film, which involves the director’s, cinematographer’s and actors’ choices, as by the script.

Screenwriters often forget this, and too often when screenwriters get a chance to direct, their movies are stylistically unimaginative, workmanlike, competent, with the focus on a straightforward, classical re-imagining of their script to the screen.

We also see this almost-exclusive focus on story in a lot of film criticism, as Matt Zoller Seitz talked about in a recent blog post. Seitz observes how most current film criticism avoids talk of style or form and focuses instead mostly on issues of narrative, plot and characters (with occasional nods to good acting or beautiful cinematography).

But, as Seitz insists, the art of movies is as much about how a story is told as the story itself. The style, the filmmaking, is what makes it a movie, and not a novel, or a play, an opera, or a dance, all equally viable forms in which to tell a story.

Is the editing fragmented or languorous? The camera in motion or static? The lighting naturalistic or stylized? The color palette vivid or subdued? Why is this shot held so long? Why is that scene shot from that particular angle? And how do all these choices affect the mood or contribute to the communication of a point of view?

I don’t want to denigrate the need for a great script as part of any great movie, but don’t be misled into thinking that relating a narrative is the only and ultimate objective of filmmaking. It is conjuring an experience for the audience that is the ultimate objective, and in creating that experience, narrative is only one element, no more important than all the others.



Weaving A Different Magic

I saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood over the weekend. In case you don’t know about this film, it tells the story of a fictional boy’s life from the time he is six years old to eighteen. The unusual thing about the film is that it was shot with the same actors over 12 years, so in the course of the 2 hour and 45 minute film, we watch the actor playing Mason age from a young child to a young adult. We also watch all the other actors age around him.

It’s a remarkable work of art, for so many reasons, but I want to talk about it in relationship to the so-called “rules” of good screenwriting.

In a previous post, I talked about how good drama involves working toward a goal against obstacles, but also how, other than that, the standard rules of a good screenplay are artistically limiting. (By the ”standard rules,” I mean, put simply, that in a good screenplay, the protagonist must have both an overarching goal and some growth that needs to be achieved. The obstacles the protagonist faces are such that the he or she must achieve that growth in order to successfully reach the goal).

Most every how-to-write- a-screenplay book buys into this notion, and even people like John August and Craig Mazin, who in their Scriptnotes podcast are usually pretty insightful about screenwriting, subscribe to it.

But, as I stressed in that previous post, this is only one type of story among many that you can tell in film, and I encourage every one to use their imagination, honesty, and life experience to free themselves to the possibilities of other stories.

This is what Linklater does in Boyhood. There is no over-arching goal providing the main thrust of this movie. In individual sequences and scenes through the course of young Mason’s life, there are goals to be achieved, but what provides the forward thrust of the film isn’t any overarching goal, but the cinematic magic of seeing Mason grow up before our eyes. That provides a sense of wonder and melancholy and even spiritual wisdom that is far removed from the usual goals of traditional, mainstream screenplays.

If that same script had been filmed with different actors playing Mason at different ages, that magic would have been lost, and the script would seem mediocre, but this doesn’t mean the script is lacking anything that would have made it better. As with Russian Ark (a 90 minute film shot in one continuous take), the means of creation becomes as vital to the power of the film as anything. And creating some kind of overarching goal for Mason would have diminished the impact and truthfulness of the film, which remains honest to the rhythms of a young boy’s life.

That is real magic, and it reminds us that film can accomplish many different things and tell many type of stories. Don’t let you imagination be limited by the rules others set for us!



“Industrial Films Are Not Art” – Jodorowsky Interview

Alejandro Jodorwsky’s new movie, The Dance of Reality, opens this weekend, his first new movie in over 20 years. The avante-garde director of The Holy Mountain and self-described “atheist mystic” talks about film in an article on Flavorwire. As always, he has provocative things to say about film and art:

“I say to the young artist, don’t make movies as a profession. Don’t make movies in order to live, in order to want money. Make your pictures when you can, but work is another thing. Don’t work in pictures for money. You will never be a real artist … Hollywood pictures, industrial pictures are the end of movies. They will kill cinema … Industrial pictures are not art.”

 

Read “Industrial Pictures Are Not Art”: Legendary Cult Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky on New Film ‘The Dance of Reality’ and How Hollywood Is Killing Cinema on Flavorwire.



Screenwriting 101: Goals and Obstacles

Goals and Obstacles

Most screenwriters have at some point come across the standard formula for writing screenplays. It goes something like this:

Good scripts involve a protagonist striving for a goal against obstacles. The obstacles get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on.

Additionally, the protagonist has some kind of personal growth that needs to be achieved, which has left the protagonist in a kind of emotional stasis at the beginning of the film. In the end, the protagonist must achieve this personal growth in order to overcome the final, greatest obstacle and accomplish the goal, or fail to change and lose.

Furthermore, a good screenplay is divided into three acts and there are specific milestones you should reach at specific points in each act. For example, in the first act, there is an Inciting Incident that disrupts the protagonist’s normal life. About halfway through the second act, there should be some kind of twist: things are not what they seem, or a friend betrays the protagonist, or a major new obstacle is thrown into the mix, etc. In the third act, right before the protagonist achieves his goal, there should be a moment when it appears all is lost. Conversely, if the protagonist eventually fails, there should be a moment when he appears to succeed.

I could go on, but you get the point. Some of this just boils down to common sense. The three-act structure is just a way to say that a film has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Inciting Incident another way to say every story has to start somewhere.

But I hope you can see how limiting this formula is, as if there is only one type of story that can ever be told. A dogged adherence to this formula is one of the reasons for the bland sameness of so many mainstream movies; they all follow the same rhythms, the same plot beats, the same character arcs.

There is one essential truth to be taken out of all of this: a good story involves a character striving against obstacles towards a specific goal.

This is the heart of drama. It keeps the audience involved and drives the narrative arc forward.

But how this plays out doesn’t need to follow any standard formula. There are so many more possibilities. Let’s take a look at three classic films and see what lessons they have for us.

Citizen Kane

In Citizen Kane, the specific goal that pushes the story into motion is the journalist trying to find the meaning of Kane’s last word “Rosebud.” It’s through his interviews with the people who knew Kane that we see the mosaic of Kane’s life story. But the journalist is not the protagonist of the story; he has no personal arc that allows him to achieve or fail at his goal; his search does not provide the emotional momentum of the story; and the eventual answer does not provide the audience with the ultimate solution to the puzzle of the film, but is simply a small piece in it.

The search for the meaning of Rosebud is the framing device that gets the audience into the story. Important, yes, memorable, yes, but not the spine of the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey

What is the main goal this movie? Answering the mystery of the monolith? This is more a goal of the audience than the characters. The prehistoric ape-men of the first section aren’t interested in answering the question. Dr. Floyd in the second section is, but the astronauts aboard the Discovery during the third and main section of the film, don’t even know about the monolith. Their main goal is to stay alive when their life support is entirely in the hands of a malfunctioning super-computer that wants them dead.

This struggle for survival makes up the largest section of the movie, but in a 140 minute movie, this narrative arc isn’t even introduced until 50 minutes in, and the problem is resolved with 25 minutes left in the film, so only about half of the film involves this story and the entire last act does not. Again, it’s an interesting and memorable element that keeps the audience involved, but it’s not what the movie is about. No single character goal provides the spine of the picture.

The Godfather

Even a movie like The Godfather, the most traditional of these three movies in terms of narrative, only tangentially follows this formula. I had a writing teacher who suggested that the specific goal of this movie is the Corleone family trying to stay out of the heroin business. This sets the main action of the film in motion, but it’s not what the heart of the film is about. The film is about many other things: capitalism and crime, the cost of loyalty to a corrupt family. Coppola himself says that when he was making it, he identified the main theme of the film as “succession” and referred back to that theme whenever questions arose in the production. The film is far more than can be summed up by a single specific goal.

In each of these films, you can see how giving characters specific goals to achieve and throwing obstacles in their way drives the story and keeps the audience engaged. Whether in overarching goals for an entire film or smaller goals for individual scenes, this is the heart of drama.

But beyond that, formula is just formula. The arcs stories can take are as endless as all the variations of the human condition.

Always make your films breath with life and imagination and daring.



Movies, Dreams, and Silence

It is commonplace to observe that the experience of seeing a movie is a lot like the experience of dreaming. Watching vivid, fantastic and shifting images unfold before you in a dark space seems to naturally invoke comparisons to the dream state.

I thought a lot about the relationship between movies and dreams during production and post on my film, The Art of Dreaming. One of the goals of that film was to try to capture the experience of dreaming.

And one of the things I noticed is that silent films are much more dream-like than sound films.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One of them, I think, is that the lack of extended conversation in silent films helps keep the experience from being overly verbal, overly rational.

But the most important reason, I think, has to do with the nature of dreams themselves. Sound does not play a very important part in most dreams.

For most people, dreams are primarily kinesthetic, visual, and emotional, not aural. .Just think about the way people describe dreams that they’ve had. People talk about what they saw, what they did, or what they felt. Not what they heard.

(There are two exceptions to this. Conversation is the first. People will sometimes report what was said in a dream, though dreams don’t frequently focus exclusively on conversation. And occasionally people will report hearing vivid and elaborate music in dreams. I’ve experienced such dreams myself, where I heard music far more complicated that I could have written in waking life, but these dreams are the exception rather than the rule, and so extraordinary that they seem very special when I have them).

This is why I love silent films so much. Despite the truism that movies are like dreams, very few modern films really are. Very few modern filmmakers are comfortable and skilled in the use of silence as a positive element. This is one of the great losses of modern cinema.

Sound has become a way of concretizing the film world, anchoring us in a specific time and place, or overwhelming our emotions with manipulative cues.

If you want to see how sound can be used to create a truly dreamlike feel, take a look at Carl Dryer’s 1932 film Vampyr. Made in the early days of sound film, Dryer shot it as a silent film, with all the sound added in post-production. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and sound effects and foley are added sparingly. You hear the sound of a door shutting, but not the footsteps of the person walking to shut it. This adds to the bizarre and dreamlike feel of what is truly one of the strangest films ever made.



What Length Should a Film Be?

One of the frustrations I’ve encountered with my film The Art of Dreaming has been trying to get it shown at film festivals. I suspected a 40 minute film would be a tough sell, because festivals seem to want to program either full-length features (approximately 75- 120 minutes) or shorts under 20 minutes long. There wasn’t any place for The Art of Dreaming.

But that 1 1/2 to two hours length for a feature film is such an arbitrary length and doesn’t seem to have much to do with the way people watch movies anymore, an anachronism from older times.

Andrei Severny has a very welcome essay on the Tribeca Film Festival website questioning this convention and urging film festivals to be more flexible in their programming. I can only say “Amen!”

Check it out.

Why We Must Free Film From Running Time Prejudice at Tribecafilm.com



Movies vs. TV

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether contemporary television is better than film, meaning that mainstream TV nowadays is generally more interesting and innovative than mainstream films. Most of the talk has to do with how the economics of each medium has forced filmmakers to play it safe and take less risks than their television counterparts.

I’d like to take a step back and talk more about more fundamental differences in the art forms.

One of my writing teaches, Ela Thier (theindependentfilmschool.com/) once said in class that the difference between TV and movies is that TV presents episodes in a person’s life, whereas a film presents the most important event in a person’s life.

A bit of a generalization, but I think there is a lot of truth to this.

(And when I talk about “film” in this post, I’m talking about narrative feature films. Short films, documentaries, and experimental films are different animals, with different aims, different pleasures and different rules.)

This distinction illuminates a lot, for example why movie sequels so often fail. How many “most important events” can a person have in his or her life? You might be able to find material enough for a second film (Tim Burton’s Batman: Batman finds the person who murdered his parents, Burton’s Batman Returns: Batman falls in love), but there are only so many times you can return to the well before it runs dry and becomes just another episode in the protagonist’s life, especially when facing the pressure to give audiences “more of the same.”

Thus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (as in the comic), Spider-Man’s defining moment comes when he discovers that the two-bit criminal he didn’t bother to stop went on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben. But by the time of Raimi’s third movie in the franchise, when it’s revealed that Uncle Ben’s killer was really another criminal, it all just seems both too much and too the same.

When I wrote for Marvel Comics, we were told that a good story involves the hero facing a moral choice that defines him or changes him. But can you really write this same story issue after issue, month after month?

Many episodic series solve this problem by sometimes having stories where the hero is not the true protagonist, but just plays a part in someone else’s story. Will Eisner’s weekly Spirit comic used this device often, where The Spirit would only be a tangential figure in the story of a small time hood or some other Everyman.

Another way that episodic stories can deal with this challenge is to have an ensemble cast. Not every Buffy The Vampire Slayer story is about Buffy. Individual stories could focus on Willow, or Xander or Giles, or any one of the large and rotating supporting cast.

Of course, sometimes films and TV can skirt these fluid boundaries, like the movie trilogies that plan from the start to tell one story, or the TV miniseries that do the same thing. And in pure, escapist action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can have an exciting story that doesn’t necessarily tell anyone’s most important event.

My point isn’t to say that one form is superior to the other, but to point out how, even beyond the economics of production and distribution, there are inherent rules to any art forms (of course, rules are made to be stretched, broken, twisted and re-formulated), and whether you choose to write episodic TV or full-length films depends on which type of story you want to make.



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