Resisting Pressure

A couple of weeks ago, I reprinted an excerpt from John August’s website where he and Craig Mazin were talking about the pressure from film producers to cut corners and trim budgets at the expense of the artistic merits of a film.

Here’s another example of the way producers can interfere, not to save money, but to try to make a film more commercial, more marketable, this time from the recent movie Gravity.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a film about a disaster in space that leaves shuttle astronauts stranded in low-earth orbit. It’s shown entirely from the perspective of the astronauts, with no cutaways to earth, and is entirely about the natural and real-life hazards of existence in space, with no added threats of evil saboteurs or menacing foes.

This is from an interview the director Alfonse Cuaron did with the site io9.

So there was no pressure anytime from anyone to focus more on the destruction and less on the characters?

When you go into the process, yes, there are a lot of ideas. People start suggesting other stuff. "You need to cut to Houston, and see how the rescue mission goes. And there is a ticking clock with the rescue mission. You have to do flashbacks with the backstory." But we were very clear that this was the film that we wanted to make.

I can’t imagine this movie leaving [the main character’s POV]. But I understand people pitch things. So what was the weirdest suggestion that you heard on how to change Gravity?

This is the thing, you will always hear voices. With making a film it’s like trying to create a tune in the shower, while you have a hundred people singing around you. You have to focus yourself in on the tune that you’re trying to create. Because you have hundreds of people singing different songs at the same time around you. There’s always that.

The whole thing of the flashbacks. A whole thing with… a romantic relationship with the Mission Control Commander, who is in love with her. All of that kind of stuff. What else? To finish with a whole rescue helicopter, that would come and rescue her. Stuff like that.

via All the Ways Hollywood Tried to Ruin Gravity.

If you’ve seen Gravity, you understand how these suggestions would have made it a different movie, turning it into a generic action movie, instead of the intense, unique, and personal experience that it is. The cutaways would have relieved the tension, rather than adding to it, the romantic sub-plot would have softened the impact and made the rhythm, cadences and resolutions the sort of things we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Obviously, there is no easy answer to how to surmount these kinds of pressure. My usual inclination to avoid big budget filmmaking (and the subsequent pressure from investors) and move away from mainstream film’s obsession with expensive, clean and polished production values, would not have worked for Gravity, which required a kind of photo-realism that only comes at great expense.

What is always required is a clarity of vision and a dogged perseverance to achieve that vision, and the fortitude to say no to people who aren’t saying yes to you.

Insights from Werner Herzog

Here‘s a very interesting rundown of a master class in filmmaking taught by the great Werner Herzog. As usual for Mr. Herzog, it’s filled with unique and personal insights into the art of filmmaking.

Just one example, that has gotten me thinking:

The Parallel Story

There is one thing you have to be very careful about in both documentaries and feature films — there is a special parallel story that occurs with the audience. The audience anticipates and rushes ahead of your story. For example, in a romantic comedy, there is a story evolving in the collective, ‘I hope they kiss each other.’ If you don’t understand the parallel story you will never make a great film.

via Master Class with Werner Herzog | Indiewire.

Penny Pinching

If you’ve ever wondered about the specific ways that the corporate mentality can damage the art of filmmaking, check out this interesting exchange between screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin on their latest Scriptnotes podcast.

They’re talking about how producers often decide where a film will be shot based on what city offers the best tax breaks rather than the needs of the script, and Craig Mazin talks about his own experiences on Identity Thief, which he wrote.

John: So, Identity Thief was Georgia, correct?

Craig: Identity Thief was shot in Atlanta.

John: Okay.

Craig: The movie was obviously always meant to be a road trip. … And I remember talking … at length with Jason and with Seth Gordon about the kind of road trip we wanted to do. And the one that we wanted to tell, because it’s important, I mean, everything is intentional. And we sort of wanted to show a cross country road trip that we hadn’t really seen.

You know, for instance Due Date had just done a really good one from Atlanta to LA, and they kind of cut through that southern swath and through the Grand Canyon. It was such a great look. And they got near the Mexican border. But what I hadn’t seen was a trip that I had actually done when I was younger, which is kind of a Boston to Portland kind of feel, that cutting across the top of the country, through the rust belt, and through dairy country, and then out through kind of big sky and all the rest of it.

… And ending up in the Pacific Northwest. And so much of what the characters look like and dress like and how they live, plus Boston is such a great town in terms of look.

John: Oh, it’s great.

Craig: And Portland is really interesting. And Portland is also interesting because of the communities that are just off it that are actually kind of trashy and depressed.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And I was screamed at. I’m not joking … I mean over the phone I was screamed at, and I was told the movie has to be shot in Atlanta or it’s not happening. And … given that the whole thing had to be shot in Atlanta, the physical production people were quite convinced that we could fool the audiences by making a road trip from Miami to Atlanta. [laughs]

And I was like, that’s a day. First of all, everything looks the same. That’s the whole point. So, how will you know you got anywhere? Forget what it does to the characters and all the rest of it. And it was an enormous fight and in the end the best I could do was get to, okay, it’s a drive from Miami to Denver, but not really Denver, Atlanta. And then pay for a second unit to sort of fake our way through St. Louis.

It was depressing, because frankly what ended up happening was the Denver scenes were just generic because frankly Denver and Atlanta are kind of generic looking cities.

John: They really are.

Craig: So, that stuff was just sort of generic. The Florida stuff was generic. And the road trip was boring. You know, you didn’t get a sense of scope or feel or the bigness of what it means to be out on the road in the middle of nowhere, just big, big…it just killed me.

John: The only sort of big wide moments you had were some of those giant tree-lined highways. And you used those for like the times when they’re walking around a bit.

Craig: … It’s generic, you know? … But this is the thing, it just bums me out … And it’s not like we were saying we have to shoot the movie in Los Angeles. And it’s not like we’re saying we can’t shoot a big chunk of it somewhere where there are tax breaks. Nor are we saying, “Okay, the movie that costs $32 million, if we do it the way we want to would cost $52 million.” It wouldn’t. It would have probably cost $37 million.

John: It would have been just fine.

via Scriptnotes, John

If you haven’t listened to Scriptnotes before, it’s a great podcast “about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.” Anyone interested in screenwriting should definitely check it out!

Functions of a Scene

When working on a script – or more specifically when in the re-write phase – I find it really useful to think about the functions of a scene.

Any scene can:

  • Reveal Exposition or Back Story
  • Reveal Character or Relationships
  • Develop Character or Relationships
  • Advance the Plot
  • Create a Mood
  • Develop the Theme of the Movie
  • Entertain or Amuse

This list isn’t meant to be exclusive; it just represents one way I like to look at things.

I find it crucial to make sure any scene in my script accomplishes more than one of these functions, preferably at least three. For example, if I need to include a scene that provides back-story to the audience, I make sure it serves another function too. At the very least it should be amusing or entertaining, but even better the scene should accomplish something else: show something new about a character or relationships, create a mood (tension, eeriness, romance, levity, etc), advance the plot.

Or if I just had a sequence with a lot of tension, I might want to follow it with a humorous or romantic scene to lighten the mood, but I still want to make sure that scene serves other functions too.

The more functions any scene has the better, without overloading, of course. This leads to a nuanced, layered script, rich in detail and emotion. It helps keep the audience engaged by creating a world full of depth and breadth and helps create a film that rewards return visits because the film is always working on many levels at once.

Have I left out any scene functions that you find useful?

Who’s Going to Pay For This Stuff?

On the Media has a great episode this week on the financial challenges facing digital media. How can you create a sustainable business model in this world of streaming, free content, youtube, piracy, audience fragmentation, and unlimited options?

They cover a lot of different topics: tv and film, music and journalism, ad-blocker and kickstarter. Check it out.

On the Media, Who’s Going to Pay for This Stuff?

I was particularly interested in this exchange between Brooke Gladstone and Peter Kafka, editor of All Things Digital:

PETER KAFKA: I think it’s hard to swap out Game of Thrones and show you something someone did in their basement and for you to be happy. An interesting question though … is that if you look at what’s popular on YouTube right now, it is stuff being done in kids’ basements. And one question I’m always asking people who have 12-year-olds or 14-year-olds is, do your kids distinguish between Game of Thrones and something that Ryan Higa, who’s a big YouTube celebrity, made, which is crude and popular. And they said, nope, it’s all just stuff, it’s all screen time. They value it equally. And if you an entrenched old media company, that has got to be a terrifying prospect.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Peter, isn’t that the wrong question you’re asking because 12-year-olds don’t stay 12 years old forever. And I would argue that they do make a distinction. They just like that basement stuff now … I loved Top Cat growing up. That doesn’t mean – well, maybe I would check out Top Cat occasionally, if it was around, but my tastes have changed since I was 12.

PETER KAFKA: … The question is will the 12-year-old of today pay some amount of money per month to get something like Game of Thrones 10 or 20 years from now? Or will they be content to watch just whatever slop sort of washes over them from YouTube?

via The Future of Streaming Video Transcript – On The Media.

The two of them move on from this topic before they get to a far more interesting question. It’s not whether 14 year-olds accustomed to watching something made in a basement will be satisfied with crap when they get older, but whether they’ll be able to enjoy something of quality that doesn’t have expensive production values. Someone can make something cheaply in their basement that isn’t crap, that is intelligent, provocative, profound and artistic.

And that is the real opportunity here for filmmakers. Now that audiences are used to enjoying “crap made in someone’s basement” they will be more open to appreciating the value of something artistic and personal, made with creativity, ingenuity, and wit, even if the production values aren’t up to multi-million dollar Hollywood standards. So film artists have an opportunity to find an audience without being beholden to corporate interests, without millions of dollars at risk, and without the concomitant artistic meddling.

But it also requires filmmakers to develop new aesthetics, new ways of looking at the world and their art that isn’t chained to the vision of Hollywood and corporate mass media.

In the 1960’s Jerzy Grotwoski argued for a new aesthetic of theater that didn’t try to compete with movies in the things movies do best, spectacle and large-scale and special effects, but utilized what theater can offer that film can’t: the presence of a live person in front of you. He called it “The Poor Theater” but he didn’t mean poor in art, or creativity, or value.

Filmmakers too can embrace a new aesthetic for a new time. That is the challenge and opportunity we face.

Plot vs. Story

As I was working on the rough draft of my new screenplay, I found myself thinking about the difference between plot and story. We’re always told that we should eliminate anything that doesn’t advance the story, especially in a screenplay, which should be simple and direct. I recently took a 6-week intensive on film editing at The Edit Center (an excellent program), and they also stressed, if it doesn’t further the story, cut it out.

This is great advice, but you’ll get yourself in trouble if you confuse plot with story. Yes, everything should advance the story, but everything doesn’t need to advance the plot.

I can explain with an analogy and with a concrete example.

First the analogy. If you think of making a movie as bulding a house, you can think of the plot as the frame of the house. The frame, like the plot, needs to be well made and well-designed. The material needs to be durable. The rooms need to flow nicely into each other. You need to have good natural light from the windows. You shouldn’t put the kitchen on the third floor or the boiler room right inside the front door.

But all of that by itself doesn’t make a house you want to live in or visit over and over again. That takes the right color of paint, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing furniture, maybe some ornamental fixtures, or some stained glass on the windows, tasteful artwork on the walls, a nice carpet, a modern, clean and efficient kitchen, a luxurious bed, etc., etc. Those are the things that make a house a home. Those things are the story.

A concrete example:

We all know the film The Godfather (if not – and do I even need to say this? – spoiler alert). Think about the scene after Sonny has been killed and Don Corleone takes his bullet-ridden body to the undertaker and tells the undertaker. “Remember you owe me a favor? I want you to fix up Sonny’s body so his mother doesn’t see him like this.”

You don’t need that scene for the plot. You could perfectly follow the story if you just cut that scene out.

But it is such a wonderful scene for so many reason: it ties things back to the very opening of the movie, and it does it with irony, since that’s not the kind of favor we expected Don Corleone to ask; the opening scene seemed to portend something much more ominous. The scene also shows us how much Don Corleone loves his family and how he tries to protect the women in the family from the consequences of the business and so is echoed at the end when Michael lies to Kay for entirely different reasons.

It’s an amazing, rich scene that resonates throughout the movie. It’s one of the scenes that everyone remembers and talks about. But it’s not plot. It’s story.

Film As Cheap as Pencil and Paper

Jean Cocteau once said “Film will only become an art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote as I transition from butoh into film. As a butoh dancer, all I needed to do my art was my body and maybe someone to do lights the night of the show. Sometimes for outdoor performances not even a lighting person.

Of course, my performances were often more elaborate than that, but the point is that at a minimum all I needed to practice my art was myself. I didn’t need anyone’s permission .

Film, at least as it’s generally practiced, is an entirely different game. It’s expensive and takes fundraising or investors.

I’m not use to needing someone else’s permission to do my art. I don’t like that feeling.

In our bright new digital world, we haven’t quite reached the “cheap as pencil and paper” that Cocteau was dreaming about, but we’re getting closer.

Of course, one of the things that make filmmaking so expensive is that it takes a lot of people to do and artists want and deserve to be paid. I’m proud to say that everyone on the set of my first, self-funded, no-budget film received some pay, not a lot, certainly not industry standard, but something.

However, I can’t help but feel that another thing keeping us back is our holding on to an aesthetic of expensive film. We’re so used to seeing multi-million dollar productions that when we see something with a lower budget, we are somehow disappointed or see it as inferior.

So I’m thinking about a new aesthetic of film, one that’s based on the needs of people and of artists, not the marketing needs of Hollywood.

I’m looking for inspiration to silent films, and to the films of the early avante-garde. One I particularly enjoyed was “The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra.” An experimental film made in 1928 that’s available on the Kino release “Avant Garde – Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s, Vol. 1.”

Among more modern filmmakers, Guy Maddin, one of my favorite living directors, is very interesting. If you don’t know his work, I urge you to check it out, especially, “The Heart of the World”, “Brand Upon the Brain”, and “My Winnipeg.”

Also interesting was Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” which was filmed on a bare stage, with chalk outlines on the floor , a few props, and written signs representing the locations. This conceit wouldn’t work for every film, but worked well with the themes and tone of that one.

We live in an exciting time. Internet video has already primed audiences to appreciate the entertainment and even artistic values of films that reflect a hand-made aesthetic.

A couple of good resources for DIY filmmakers: John Reiss’ book “Think Outside the Box Office” is a good, thorough rundown of the tools available to today’s filmmakers interested in self-funding and self promoting.

Also the website Workbook Project is dedicated to offering independent filmmakers innovative ideas to help develop, fund and distribute their own work.

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