Friday, February 26, 2010

Rules and Regulations

The sparks were flying last night as we screeners lobbied, discussed and argued over whether or not particular films were any good. Perfect time for a reminder that mine is not the only voice in the room – so if you think I'm full of it, you're not alone and chances are your opinion is well represented in the screening room.

To the movies:

Can we have a moratorium on slow piano and/or guitar music in short films - solo chello, too, while we're at it? Sure, sometimes it's exactly the right thing – but those are rare and ruined by the thousands of bad usages that we just need to stop for a few years until it becomes new again.

We had a film last night with a nice dramatic moment that had no music, then just as one of the screeners said, "Great that they had the courage not to put music over that," in came the slow piano plunking out random notes and chords. "Spoke too soon," we all said.

I don't know what the composers are thinking with this stuff. Insomniacs would pay good money for a CD of the soundtracks we're exposed to every week. When I was at North Carolina School of the Arts I talked to a musician about how some classical music concerts just puts me to sleep. "That's fine," he said. "It's a perfect human reaction, especially if it's a lullaby."

Well, people, movies are not meant to be lullabies. Your objective should not be to put your paying audience to sleep. This is especially true if you have a slowly paced scene. Slow music over it, under it, or anywhere around it is going to bring everything to a halt.

This brings me to another one of my rules I like to keep in mind when writing, directing, etc.

THE 180-DEGREE RULE: If you are working on something dark, make sure you read through to find the light. If you're working on something slow, find the natural fast rhythm. If you've got a great melody, find the base notes. If it's a drama, find the humor. If it's a comedy, find the pathos. In nearly every case, if choice A works, then Opposite-A will also work. You don't always have to go with it, but you should know it's there.

If you're really good, you can use this to find what musicians call "implied notes." These are notes that aren't played, but the listener thinks they hear. That look behind an actor's eyes that says there is drama behind his humor. The smile on a character's face that punches through the tears. When you see these in great performances, they aren't accidents. They are a well-placed application of the 180-degree rule.

I've also been considering a new rule. It's a work-in-progress so maybe you guys can discuss it here. I call it, EARN YOUR DRAMA.

So many films start heavy and go down from there. You get the feeling watching them that the actors woke up that morning thinking, "I'm going to work in a drama, so I must be serious and stern all day." I picture the crew sinking into deep depression as the shooting goes, until finally the boom operator can't hold her arms over her head for the emotional weight on her shoulders.

And it doesn't work. From the first frame of the movie, we don't care about these people who do nothing but wallow around with a weight on their shoulders. Just once, I'd like to see a character with a heavy emotional load tap dance in the opening scene, you know? Of course, in a short, you have to get right to the action, but if you know you're making a drama remember, you're going to have to earn it. Start us off with something light, something normal, even if it's just for a second (literally). Then you can come down on that character with an emotional ton of bricks and we'll be right there to help lift the burden – because we want to get him back to the happy person we saw before.

Like I said, this rule is a work in progress – would love to hear your thoughts.

Back to the movies:

There is nothing worse in storytelling than to be behind your audience. The most obvious example of this is a murder mystery where we're not supposed to know who the killer is, but we do – and the characters don't. We can even call out the twist that's supposed to be a big surprise long before it happens. As the storyteller, you have to constantly be aware of what cards you've dealt your audience and how they are going to put them together. You can't let them get gin before you're ready. You want them eagerly awaiting their next plot point. And you must make sure they win the game only when the last card is dealt.

We had a few movies last night that had problems in script logic. A character says something in one scene that doesn't jibe with a plot point in the next. This is a complete failure in writing, editing, storytelling. Make sure the logic of your story is sound.

We had a lot of phone conversations in the films last night. One was brilliant – they obviously new their film history, climbed the shoulders of giants, and did a nice homage to Doris Day and Rock Hudson. The others, not so much. As a general rule (someone else's not mine), phone conversations should be avoided in movies. They don't make for great pictures, so write around them. With cell phones, this gets harder and harder – how many times can the battery go dead or the coverage be lost? But still, if you can write around a phone call, do it. If you can't, then understand that you're breaking a filmmaking 101 rule, and make it interesting.

Finally, a word about the one joke movie that goes too long. I touched on this in the play-by-play article, but it's worth another mention. If your movie is basically one joke, that's fine. Get in, get out. You do that, and I guarantee you that you'll enjoy a long festival run. If you go one frame past what is obviously the natural end of the joke, then you'll be one of a million entries with the judge's note, "one joke that goes too long – PASS."

That's it for this week. Have a good weekend, and thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Masculine vs. Feminine Art

Taking a break for a moment from screenings to discuss an academic (meaning, not very useful) theory I've had about art in general over the years. While it is purely an intellectual discussion, the concept has sometimes helped when I'm faced with different styles of art or settling arguments between friends over the question of whether or not the movie we just saw was good or bad.

I think that all art can be categorized as more Masculine, more Feminine, or a nice balance of both.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about male or female. Gender has nothing to do with it. I could just as easily call them Conservative and Liberal – but that opens another can of worms. In this case, I'm thinking of Masculine and Feminine as the French do in language. Some words are Masculine some are Feminine. Why? Who knows, they're French. It sounds sexy, so go with it.

To me, Masculine Art is more structured. It obeys the rules that professors like to teach. A Masculine painting will be in the realistic style with proper lighting and composition. A Masculine film, novel or play will be plot-driven with a strong hero, a good villain, and a neat and tidy ending. Masculine dance will have a plot as well. It will tell a story. Etc.

Masculine Art appeals to the brain. Its skills can be taught, learned, and repeated.

Feminine Art appeals to the heart. Often it is more personal to the artist. A Feminine painting will be of the modern style – where colors and abstract composition evoke an emotion in the viewer more than the information or painting skills of a realistic style. Feminine stories are more character driven; the psychology of the characters will influence actions more than the logic of the situations. Feminine dance will be more about the movement, color, music, etc. than the story of why the characters are dancing. At its purest, Feminine dance would be everyone dancing, with no audience at all.

All works of art (and by art I mean The Arts – without a considering the quality of the work: TV sitcoms are included in The Arts as much as classical Opera or dime store novels or Shakespeare) contain some elements of each quality. I think great art finds a balance that is specific to the work, which might or might not be equal between the two.

So much for musings. Back to the movies on Friday.

Friday, February 19, 2010

One Lousy Point

To start with, the Lakers-Celtics game was last night during our screenings. Grrrrr… I recorded it for when I got home, stayed up until 1:00 watching it and the Lakers lost by one point.

I'll try not to let my lack of sleep and bitterness spill over into the blog – but I can't guarantee it won't effect my grammar.

It was Therapy Night last night. So many of the 15 movies we watched were either about therapy, had underlying themes of therapy, characters that needed therapy, or sometimes filmmakers who obviously could use some time on the couch. This is all fine in a great film, but we didn't see a lot of greatness last light – in the movies or, later, from the Lakers. When I get the feeling that making the film was a life-changing experience for the filmmaker, I get a little upset. It's supposed to be a life-changing experience for the audience. If you're going to make me sit through the vanquishing of your inner demons while doing nothing about mine, then pay me $200 an hour.

We also had a few movies that just made no sense from a plot point of view, prompting one of the screeners to suggest I write about test audiences. Before you lock picture, make sure you show your movie to as many honest, trustworthy, non-friends-&-family as you can. Get their honest feedback. See if you can pick up their body language as they watch it. See where they have questions or don't understand something. It's okay to have them while the story is unfolding, but if the film doesn't answer all the questions by the time it's over, your story fails on the most basic level – communication. The old days of experimental theatre arts, where the auteur would say, "The audience is too dim to understand my work" are over (thank God). The audience pays you to tell them a story. If you tell them one that makes no sense, you've failed.

Moc vs. Doc. The Mocumentary has become such a prevalent genre among submissions, which run along side actual Documentaries, that often it's hard to tell if something is a Moc or a Doc. In neither case is this a good thing. Okay, Orson Wells got us all with War of the Worlds. Ha-ha, very funny. Stop it. The best Mocs – or the best comedies for that matter – all give the audience what I call "permission to laugh." Some little wink and a nod to the audience early on that tells us, it's okay, I'm being funny on purpose. When watching a movie where you're not sure if it's real or a parody, you spend the entire time trying to answer that question – and miss the point of the film. So, if you're a serious documentarian, understand that anything even close to satire is going to make us wonder – if you're a comedian, make sure you let us in on the joke. Cast Fred Willard in an early cameo – then we can all settle in for a fun ride.

Sound. Sound. Sound. I've said it before, I'll say it again.

As a filmmaker you only have two tools to work with: Light and Sound. If you don't spend as much time and energy on your sound, then you are ignoring 50% of your job. Every other aspect of your movie could be perfect, and you'll still get a failing grade. This is especially true of voice over / narration, but I wrote about that the other day.
ibid. op sit.

On that note, there is a sound effect that needs to be retired. They don't have names, so it's hard to say exactly what it is. Some call it the David Lynch/Twin Peaks grinding metal feedback sound. It also sounds a lot like the very last piece of the Dr. Who end credits – which was first done in 1963, so that shows you how original everyone is who uses it. I swear this sound is in 75% of the movies we watch. Not only that, it blares over dialogue. It clips. It intrudes on the story. It walks into the room and says, "Aren't I cool?" which, of course, means it's not.

That brings us to video effects. Just because we can now all do them, doesn't mean we have to. Try cutting your movie together the old-fashioned way. Figure that for every edit that isn't a simple splice of film, you're going to have to pay a lab a ton of money. Then see where an effect is so required in the telling of the tale, that you're willing to dig into your pocket to pay for it. Put those one or two in. The rest are not necessary and detract from what you're trying to say.

I wrote in my notes, "We get the point, move on." I write this a lot. When you're making a short you don't have to follow Shakespeare's 3-rule (say it three times so the audience gets it). It's a short. If your character is paranoid, one example is all we need. If you want to do more, fine, but make them quick and subtle. You're a boxer in a one-round fight. Jab-jab, bring on the big punch, and go to a neutral corner.

To end on a positive note, a word about the power of committed, talented actors. One of those movies I mentioned that made no sense had such a fantastic cast that every one of the screeners was riveted. I don't know what the scores were like, but there's a good chance that film will be carried into the festival on the shoulders of the cast. Somehow they found something in the words they could relate to on a moment-to-moment basis, and their commitment to each moment made us want to watch the next – even though, collectively, the pieces didn't add up to anything.

Good acting can save a filmmaker when all else fails.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Okay, it's experimentation time.

A couple of literary agents in cyberspace go through their stack of query letters "live" on their blog. That is to say, they read each letter then give a one or two line comment on it in their blog – always saying whether it's a pass or a request for the full manuscript. It makes for great reading. In one case I recognized my own query letter in the comments (which isn't supposed to happen) and adjusted my letter to address the issue the agent brought up.

So I figured, why do this with the short film submissions?

Below are my random thoughts about each film we watched last night as we watched them. I've tried to keep the comments general enough so you can't tell which film we were watching, but I'm sure if you've submitted a short to DWF you won't be able to resist guessing which one is yours. I'll bet you money you're wrong. 

Some things to keep in mind: THERE WERE FOUR OTHER SCREENERS WATCHING AT THE SAME TIME, so my opinion is just one-in-five. Believe me, the range of tastes is wide, so if I passed it doesn't mean everyone did.

Every screener has their own system. Personally, I give films a PASS, MAYBE MINUS, MAYBE, MAYBE PLUS, MUST SEE MINUS, MUST SEE, and very rarely a BOOK IT NOW. Only after we've seen all the films to begin to hash out what's in the festival and what's not, so again, a pass by one screener at this level is not a death sentence.

1st Movie: "This disk cannot be played." Message on the PS3. We'll try it on my computer later. If that doesn't work, ask the filmmaker for another copy. Next.

2nd movie: Good Start. I'm interested. A lot of the films we're getting this year have soundtracks that sound like they came from soft-core porn. Slow pacing. I’m way ahead of the story. Second copyright logo issue – not a killer, but shows a lack of skills. Production sound that's obviously been gated, would be okay if the story was better, but it's dragging. The acting is solid, which is always a plus. Ultimately, this is a Maybe.

3rd Movie: Nice opening shot that told a good story – but went on WAY too long. Blown out video (whites so white that you can't see anything). Just laughed out loud… always good. Kept my interest even though there was a lot NOT to like about it. MAYBE Plus.

4th – 18 minutes… oh, god… The first minute or so of this film would have made a pretty good short – one joke, and out. But they're going to drag this one bad frat-boy joke out over 18 minutes… please say it ain't so. Funny how the sound gets better when the camera is closer to the actor. Get boom operators and mixers, people. The mic on top of the camera is for your vacation videos. PASS TLTB (Too Long, Too Boring).

5th movie – Good Logo, usually means bad movie… we'll see. Damn, another cut down feature – right in the middle of a fairly good movie, a scene that makes no sense because the back-story was cut. Some good filmmaking skills here, but the script is bad, mostly in the dialogue. There are so many ½ subplots that have been cut to the bone that the story doesn't make sense. This is a shame, because in all other departments this is a well-made film. But a bad script will kill good filmmaking every day. MAYBE PLUS.

6th movie – MUST SEE – didn't get to write anything during it, it was too good.

7TH -- A story with not dialogue. So I'm touching typing. A little slow, but beautiful, exotic location. Thin story, but it's holding up. Really long, though… don't know how it will hold up on a big screen. MUST SEE.

8th Movie – shakey cam… hate that. Have to be a really good movie to make up for it. Lots of screaming. Unmotivated shouting scene. Extraordinarily unbelievable, stereotypical dialogue. PASS.

9th Short Doc – Good sense of humor in this documentary, and an honest journalism style. Definitely stuff I've never seen before. Good stuff. MUST SEE.

10TH – What is it about bad acting that you can tell there's no talent present even before they do anything? Action movie plots, con man stories, etc. aren't really made for the short format, particularly if the screenwriter isn't in full command of his or her skills. Too much back-story is required to get to the conflict, so we're left watching nothing but exposition. For a short, you have to get in, make your point, and get out. PASS

NOTE: Movie number 10 made no sense half way through, so while the other screeners stuck with it, I went to the restroom, took a break to get another slice of pizza, came back, typed this, and the movie is still going – and still makes no sense.

11th Music Video – Yeah, short! Not a great song, but cute. Music videos are so hard to judge. MAYBE.

12th This comedy is all over the map. Sometime's it's an honest character driven comedy, sometimes it's an over-the-top farce, and I'm not sure the filmmaker is in control of what's what. The cast is great, definitely working actors, which is fine by DWF. Ultimately, a pass since it made no sense, which is a shame given the quality of the cast.

13 – Two minutes in and nothing has happened. Watched the entire movie and nothing happened. PASS.

14 – A musical. Not our first this year. Why do I get the feeling that all the shows like Glee mean we're going to see a lot more of these? Some good laughs, but few and far between. MAYBE MINUS.

15 – Getting tired. Watching the movies is okay, but hard to type at the same time. This movie is based on a true story that is so much more dramatic than the film that I have a hard time liking the movie. Still, they pulled off the story in a difficult film setting – and it is a story that should be told… but are we the ones to make an audience sit through a so-so film just for that? Tough call. Table this one for later, so MAYBE.

16 – Music Video – Not a great song, and that's always bad in a music video.

That's it. Seems a lot shorter re-reading it this morning, but trust me, 15 movies is a haul – particularly going into our 13th year (10th for me).

I hope this helps, or at least is entertaining. Let me know and thanks for reading.

Friday, February 5, 2010

When They're Good

Before I get to this week's screening notes, a little business:

For all the writers (or writer/directors or teams) – don’t forget that DWF has the 2Minute 2Step short film challenge. This is a contest where 2-minute-or-less scripts are submitted – preferably with a director and production team behind the project (aka, friends who'll help make the movie). DWF choices up to 8 scripts and gives them 4 hours to shoot and edit their movie – which then screens at the festival the next night. DWF supplies: Canon state-of-the-art cameras, an "empty space" for shooting, a simple grip & electric package, an edit bay (usually in the lobby of the theatre so everyone gets to watch you sweat out the final stages of production) – and all the fun you can handle.

Check out the link to the right for more info.

Next: DWF has a little alumni get together the first Wednesday of every month. This week, Norman Gerard from year 2 showed up touting his book, FIZZLE. In it, he tells the story of what happened after he made his film, which Variety calls, "…a rollicking good time through good times and bad, high art and low-lifes, auteurs and con artists." So, check it out.

On to the films this week:

Casting is always an issue in independent films. Don't get me wrong, we have seen many a film with obvious non-actors in roles that they absolutely nail. Like an acting teacher once told me, "if you're born to the play the part, you don't need anything I'm going to teach you."

But we also see a lot of films where actors are either miss-cast, or just don't have the chops to pull off a role they weren't born to play. The character so beautiful no one could resist him/her – played by someone who wasn't that person twenty years ago, much less today. The mean boss that all the employees are afraid of – played by a college freshman that you just want to take home for milk and cookies. Etc. etc.

So do yourselves a favor, folks. Plan ahead. Take some extra time when it comes to casting. If you get this part right then half your directing work is done. Screw it up, and nothing can save your project.

Music videos. For the past two years we've accepted music video submissions. At first they were hard to evaluate – what makes a good music video? Are we judging the song, the video, how they go together, everything, what? Now, I have to say I'm getting a kick out of them. For one thing, they're only 3-4 minutes long, so make a nice break between 20 minute movies that feel like 60 minute ones and could be 5 minutes without losing much. They're also a throwback to simpler times. Ah, the nostalgia of the '80s, when you knew what the M in MTV stood for. Keep 'em coming folks.

Personal Documentaries. We put one in the DVD player last night and I turned to a fellow screener, rolled my eyes and said, "God, I hate personal docs." She nodded in agreement and we proceeded to watch one of the best short films I've ever seen. So, for a change, let's look at the positive. What made this personal story something worth watching where so many others are a raving bore?

Answer? It was relevant to anyone who might watch it. Personal information tied to general truths about life. I could take something away from the story that had nothing to do with Uncle Willie's Elvis impersonation, or Aunt Sally's terrific apple pie, or any of the other stuff we've had to watch in the bad personal docs. Also, this good one was well-made from a film perspective. It moved. It was intelligent. It had something to say, and did it quickly in an entertaining way. Bravo.

I spoke of surreal films a week or two ago. We had a good one last night. I wrote on my evaluation sheet, "This filmmaker has skills." Always nice to see.

Which brings to what I'll end with this week – a reminder to you all, how much we want your film to be good. There have been times when I'm literally chanting as the DVD loads, "please be good, please be good, please be good." Your good films give us purpose. We sometimes wonder why we're here, doing this for other filmmakers when we all have projects of our own begging for our time, a good film that's a world premiere, struggling to find an audience in the sea of material that's out there, invigorates us. You keep us going when you take the time to create your best work.

Thanks, and keep it up.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Artistic Cross Training

If you bother to check out the followers of this blog - a whopping total of 6 as I write this, but no matter - you'll find as many if not more novelists as you do filmmakers. This is because I've been slaving away for the past couple of years on adapting and selling my screenplay as a novel, and have picked up a few friends along the way.

I've also discovered that knowledge does transfer from one form to the other, just as my degree in acting/theatre helped me write and direct film.

The big things that apply to all storytelling are OBJECTIVES, OBSTACLES, and when I was an actor I added TACTICS.

For those of you who recognize these words, you can skip to the next paragraph. Whether you're playing a role, writing a screenplay, or a novel, you'll find that every character has something they want (Objective); something that's keeping them from getting it (Obstacle); and a plan for achieving their objective (Tactics). The bigger, harder, more terrifying each of these are, the better your story.

As a freshman actor, we had an exercise for scene work. We had to finish the following sentence for each line of dialogue and/or stage direction: "I want to [OBJECTIVE / ACTION VERB], by [TACTIC], but I can't because [OBSTACLE]."

You'll notice the verb is an "action verb." The more active, the better. "I want to talk to Sally..." Yeah? So? Who cares? "I want to rip Sally's guts out..." much more interesting.

One of my better teachers made a list of visceral, active verbs that I wish I'd kept, especially when my father - a life-long, unpublished novelist - helped me with the first draft of my manuscript. It was full of passive verbs, not only in conjugation, but in meaning. "You have to have more action verbs," he told me.

That's when it all came together. In film, cut on motion. In writing, cut adverbs. In acting, do less. It's all the same thing done in different ways.

Novel: "Suddenly, the cat jumped from behind the bookcase," is less scary than "The cat jumped from behind the bookcase."

In film: The shot of the hero walking down the hall, then cutting to the cat with a loud meow - is less scary than staying in the shot of the hero for a split second more, seeing him begin to look in fear as we hear the meow, then cutting to the cat in mid-jump.

Little stuff, yes - but that's where the craft is.

A word of caution to those filmmakers who think they can get their script sold by turning into a play or novel. I ran into a million of these people when I was doing theatre in Los Angeles. I wanted to kill them. They didn't respect theatre at all - to them it was just a stepping stone to film. To me, it was my art. My job. And I was no one's stepping stone. If you have a story to tell that might work in a different medium, then you'd better respect it.

Writing a novel is just as hard as finishing a movie. By that, I mean writing a good, well-crafted, novel. Sure, you can slap some words on the page that get the idea across - that's the way we all write screenplays (concentrate on the dialogue, make sure the action lines are clear, and that the locations work for the production). In a novel, you are the art department, you are the editor, you are the director, you play all the roles. You don't have anyone on your team to pick up the slack. If your characters play football, you have to. If they wear a ball gown, you have to design it.

And novels are just as hard to sell as films. So, do it for love.

More on screening on Friday.

Thanks for reading.