Month: October 2014

Spotlight on Shorts: Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan

Filmmakers make shorts for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s to showcase their abilities on a small budget or win festival awards in a shorts category. It may even be because they have a compelling story, but it simply can’t be stretched out to 120-minutes. Still, some filmmakers use shorts as a way to pitch a potential feature-length film to audiences and investors by presenting it to them as a short for a fraction of the price. This can prove to be quite effective in that it allows viewers a chance to get a better feel for the full film by presenting it in the medium it’s intended for. Films like Saw have used this method of pitching to much success as their original short film has spawned an entire franchise.

One of my favorite horror movies of the last year was Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan. The film particularly struck a chord with me because it relied heavily on psychological fear and suspense, a la The Shining, rather than the blitzkrieg of gore and jump-out-of-your-seat moments common with horror films nowadays. Even more impressive is that it’s a wonderfully shot film made for the low, low price of $5,000,000.

Much like Saw, Oculus started out as a 30-minute short entitled “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” (and yes, I did search for chapters 1 and 2 to no avail. They don’t appear to exist). Although it was never Flanagan’s original intention to pitch a feature film, the short managed to create enough buzz to attract studios interested in turning it into a full-length film.

The film is simple enough, using a simple white room as its only location and really only starring one actor (if you don’t count the pair of delivery guys who are on-screen for 30-seconds). Much like the feature, “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” relies on psychological fear and clever usage of audio to create tension. The rest of the film is purely expositional as the main character, Tim, tells us the history behind the mysterious Lasser Glass as well as his history with it. By keeping things simple, Flanagan managed to keep the budget of “Oculus Chapter 3” to around $1,500.

Those familiar with Oculus the feature will see similarities in plot in “Oculus Chapter 3”. What’s interesting to note is what was changed in its transition from short to feature. Originally, studios wanted Oculus to be a “found footage” film not unlike The Blair Witch Project or VHS, but Flanagan felt that route would destroy the concept of the film.

He had this to say:

“And kind of immediately, as it got out into the festival circuit, people were enjoying it and there was interest in expanding it into a feature — but everybody wanted to do the found footage thing because there was cameras in the room. And I didn’t think that worked for this story because the only thing that really is going to make it work is if we can say that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t objective. Found footage has to be objective. You have to believe the frame.”

I couldn’t agree more with this. One of the most original things about this film is the ability to create fear around, what essentially is, an inanimate object that you can coincidently buy for $409.90 here if you want to scare the piss out of your visiting guests.

As the short film shows, by incorporating a sense of distortion by the use of editing and sound, the fear in “Oculus Chapter 3” comes from the journey the audience has with the protagonist as our senses are tested and we begin to lose faith in the objective. The fear of “found footage” films is quite the opposite. We trust modern-day audio and video equipment to show us the objective truth that can sometimes be clouded be the limitations of our own senses. “Found Footage” films count on this reality to reveal to us “reliable evidence” to give us physical proof to something that was previously considered metaphysical.

What may be of most use to filmmakers looking to use shorts to pitch a bigger features is how Flanagan manages to expand on “Oculus Chapter 3” in an interesting way without making things seem repetitive. Although films like Cast Away and Buried managed to build a feature around one character and one location, it would’ve been very hard to keep a horror film like Oculus interesting under he same conditions. I mean, mirrors are only so scary to a point.

Flanagan had this to say about the transition:

“The idea was always that we could take these two stories, braid them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more and more frequently, hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together into a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer. Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short.”

Shorts clearly can be made for a variety of reasons. Although most filmmakers don’t get into the shorts for their money-making potential, that doesn’t mean they can’t lead to bigger projects.  Keep that in mind when writing your next short. Perhaps the life of your short can extend beyond the 120-minute mark and on to the box office.

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One Draft is Not Enough

There’s a scene in Moneyball I particularly like. Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, and his first base coach, Ron Washington, are talking to Chris Pratt’s character, Scott Hatteberg, about playing first base. The washed up Hatteberg is surprised that anyone would want him; especially for a position he’s never played. Pitt tells him, “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.” To which Washington responds, “It’s incredibly hard.”

It is unfortunate that I’ve heard a surprising amount beginning filmmakers reflect Pitt’s sentiment about this about the writing process. I get asked by filmmakers to look over their scripts from time to time, partially because of my schooling and partially because I’ll read anything someone shoves in my face. After I finish, the first question I normally ask is how many drafts they went through.   It’s gotten to the point that I’m not even surprised anymore when they tell me it’s the only one or the worse response, “Drafts?”

Or is it Draughts?

Or is it Draughts?

It’s not difficult to tell when a filmmaker has put the bare minimum into their script. It’s often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, lacks any cohesiveness or the structure is all over the place.   When these things are pointed out, the most common question I get is, “Well, what can I do real quick to fix it? I plan on shooting in X number of days.”

I understand why this is the case. Just like Beane in Moneyball, amateur filmmakers suspect that writing is probably the easiest thing to get around. As a result, they write up a random amount of scenes, devoid of common screenplay structure, and simply figure they’ll fix whatever problems during shooting or in post. This lack of concern for the script is fueled further by the need to get to shooting the film (the fun part) as quickly as possible. They will come up with an idea, set a date for shooting, and rush to bang out a script a month before filming.

There’s a great benefit that beginning filmmakers often overlook when working independently. Hollywood will, at times, set a date for shooting well before anyone has written a single line of dialogue. One of the reasons for this is because they often hire more than one writer to go through the various stages of a script, adding things as they see fit. As a result, these hired writers are given deadlines they must meet to make sure the film gets to shooting on time. For the independent filmmaker that chooses to write his own film, they will most likely be the only writer. This allows filmmakers a freedom that hired Hollywood screenwriters rarely have the luxury of, the ability to take their sweet time.

George Clooney has a quote that’s always stuck with me:

“You cannot make a good film out of a bad script. You can make a bad film out of a good script – easily. I’ve seen that happen before, but you can’t do it the other way around; it always has to be the screenplay.”

This is how I believe all filmmakers should look at the screenwriting process, that if they decide to half-ass it the only result they can hope for is a half-assed film. Your film is only as good as your script because you can’t turn shit into gold. This is why it’s imperative to try and get your script as good as it can be before you get to filming.

When in doubt, listen to Ron Swanson.

When in doubt, listen to Ron Swanson.

To help you visualize the importance of a script let me give you an example I’ve always used. It has always helped me to envision a film as a living, breathing human entity. I know that sounds ridiculous, but bear with me. Try to imagine the screenplay as the base or skeletal structure of the film. It controls the plot, characters and structure of your story. As you move on to shooting your start adding the flesh of it all, the actors, the locations, all the moving and textural parts to the film. Finally in post, you piece all the parts together through the editing process and breathe life into the film. I know this sounds like something out of Frankenstein, but I’m sure many filmmakers can to relate to Victor’s obsession with breathing life into a creation.

Now, imagine the script is not structurally sound, is full of plot holes or lacks cohesiveness. Without a strong foundation all you’re left with is a formless mound of flesh and organs, something that could only be devised by the three-way lovechild of Picasso, Dali and Pollack who was then given paint and a canvas. With this in mind it’s not hard to recognize the importance of getting a script as perfect as possible. The only way to do this is to take your time and edit, edit, edit.

Professional Hollywood scripts often go through multiple drafts. For instance, The King’s Speech wet through a whopping fifty drafts before they got to shooting the film. Now I’m not saying you should go through fifty drafts, even I think that’s insane, but if it takes a seasoned writer like David Seidler, who’s been writing for over forty-five years to write that many, it should probably take someone new to writing more than one.

Another thing to keep in mind is that of all the stages of the filmmaking process, writing is easily one of the least expensive. As they say, time is money. This is often a result of rental fees for equipment, payment for cast and crew (if you choose to pay your cast and crew), electric for lighting, etc. Literally the only things you pay for during the writing process are paper and ink. Maybe copies at Kinkos and those fancy brass fasteners as well. Furthermore, any plot holes or bad dialogue that you don’t notice till you start shooting is just going to take up time that you’re now paying for. Since your time is not costing you anything during the writing process, you might as well take as much as you can now before it becomes a valuable commodity.

Fasten only the top and bottom.  The empty hole in the middle is where a piece of your soul goes.

Fasten only the top and bottom. The empty hole in the middle is where a piece of your soul goes.

I’m sure many of you might be asking what makes a structurally sound script? I’d love to get into it, but quite frankly I don’t feel like testing the character limits WordPress allows on a single post. Plus, there are far more skilled writers than myself who have dedicated their lives to teaching screenwriting. As it so happens, I know a few popular ones that I would suggest any budding filmmaker read before they attempt to write their next film.

Anything from Syd Field is good. I particularly like The Screenwriter’s Workbook.   Another book I would recommend is The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Finally, although I haven’t read it myself, many people swear by is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Believe it or not, after you get the hang of screenwriting it can become a very fun and rewarding experience. I can tell you that nothing beats the feeling of completing that first draft or knowing that you wrote a truly great scene. Not to sound grandiose, but writing is as close as having godlike powers as you can get. No other profession I can think of allows you to create unique people with their own voice and experiences, and allows you to do whatever you want with them. Reward them, hurt them, give them riches or outright kill them, the choice is yours. Furthermore, a good script will excite the rest of your cast and crew. Believe me, nothing makes an actor drool like a good character written well. With this in mind, why would any filmmaker choose to rush through the writing process?

FOCUS ON FILMMAKERS: CODY EVERETT

 

For my first interview I really wanted to cover someone I felt really embodied the type of filmmaker I want to speak to. Someone who’s just starting his film career, but knows exactly what direction he’s headed. I couldn’t have asked for a more representative and entertaining subject than Cody Everett.

His directorial debut, “The Greatest Lie Ever Told“, which he also wrote, premiered at this year’s Phoenix Comicon. It was also an official selection at the 2014 Jerome Film Festival.  He was also a producer on the short horror film Dust Jacket.

You can watch “The Greatest Lie Ever Told” on YouTube or make your life easy and click play on the embedded video above.

Friendly Neighborhood Filmmaking: Why did you get into film?

Cody Everett: That’s actually a really good question, because I never really thought about why I did it, I just always wanted to do it. I mean, part of the reason was to prove that I could, to the group of people I make movies with. That was the [biggest] part of it, to say, “No look, I can do it too,” because I didn’t think I was taken seriously. That was the main reason. I’ve always enjoyed movies from an early age. It’s fun for me to do. I love working on a set. At first, I wanted to be an actor in high school. Then I wanted to learn both sides and I just kind of gravitated more towards telling people how to act, because I was better at picking out shitty acting than I was at acting.

[A smile creeps across his face]

I wouldn’t mind being, what’s his name, Renny Harlin.

FNF: Who?

CE: The guy who’s directed everything. He directed Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Also one of the Exorcist sequels, one of the newer ones. This guy, he did one action movie and people were like, “Fuck it, he can do it. He does everything!” He did a horror movie and now he’s doing all this other shit, but no one knows it’s him because he’s not a great director, but he works.

FNF: Are you saying Harlan’s an influence or just, “Well, if he can do it…”

CE: It’s kind of both. [laughs] I mean, [Hollywood] will throw anything at him. He’s made a career at making mediocre movies. His claim to fame is he made the worst Die Hard.

FNF: I wouldn’t say that, have you seen the new one? With the son?

CE:   True.

FNF: Unfortunately, that guy had to wait twenty years for Hollywood to make a worse Die Hard than number two.

CE: You know Renny Harlan was just sitting there, hands clenched, saying, “Please suck.”

FNF: Well, other than Renny Harlin, did you have any other influences?

CE: I’m mostly influenced by comedy. My mom was really into old movies. I grew up with Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges, The Carol Burnett Show, but also Dean Martin, straight men like that. I’ve always like over the top physical comedy. That’s where my humor started.   I found humor as a way to deal with things and situations in life. If you can make a shitty situation in life funny, it doesn’t seem so shitty. I feel I went through some weird film stages, but also some of the same film stages as everyone else. As a kid I was always drawn toward the darker, macabre stuff. It started out with what I call Baby Macabre, Tim Burton stuff, but then I started watching Troma stuff, which is weird because Troma had always been in my life.

FNF: Yeah?

CE: Yeah, I remember my dad taking me to the grocery store, back when you would rent movies from the grocery store, and they had me pick out a movie. Toxic Avenger had a cartoon on at the time and they let me rent Toxic Avenger 3, the one where he fights Satan. I got that one, where he knocks Satan’s head off, there are tits in it, all this crazy stuff. Total B movie. I watched it by myself, because [my parents] thought it was a kid’s movie. They just popped it in, like it was the babysitter. I watch that movie still to this day, and it’s like, “A kid should not be watching this!” I was eight years old. It’s weird, [Troma] was my phase through high school as well. I got into the kind of grunge way of filmmaking by watching those movies. [Troma] kind of said, “Alright, well make your own damn movie.” I would read or watch whatever I could from Troma. A few are some of the worst movies you’ll ever see, but I like a lot of terrible movies. There are people that will think certain movies are just god-awful and I’ll love them. I want to be the Uwe Boll of America.

FNF: Really?

No, I’m kidding, I want to be Renny Harlin. [laughs]

FNF: Tell me about the first film you worked on. “Return of Mothra”?

CE: Yeah, “Return of Mothra” was a high school film. It was a remake with Chris Wilembrect. The story was pretty cohesive. We had this moth we made in ceramics class and we had it attacking this Matchbox car. It was stupid, but we put it into the Phoenix Film Festival. It was just this stupid comedy, but we got a letter back saying “Return of Mothra” got in.

FNF: What year was this?

CE: 2003.

FNF: So you were, what, seventeen, eighteen?

CE: Yeah, something like that.

FNF: Wow, and you got a film into a film festival. What was that experience like?

CE: It was weird. It was the high school portion of it, so no one gave a shit, but I met Brian O’Halloran there from Clerks who was amazingly nice. John Waters was also there, who Chris was a big fan of, so that was the big thing to do. We have to go see John Waters!

FNF: So why did you pick “The Greatest Lie Ever Told”? What spoke to you about this film made you decide to make it your directorial debut?

CE: My goal was not to be a director. I didn’t feel I was that far advanced yet. I was trying to find a way to get respect from the group of people I work with. I felt I had to do something, so they could say, “Ok, he’s done it before. I’ll listen to him.” I mean, just because someone hasn’t done something before doesn’t mean their ideas are bad.

FNF: Agreed.

CE: Eventually I decided [directing] would make me a better producer, which is what I really wanted to be. So I was thinking, “What can I do that’s kind of easy?” I see everybody do these overcomplicated short films. I just wanted to do something easy, to show these guys I could do it. I was going to write this story about a father that shows up on his son’s doorstep. The son hasn’t seen him in years, but the father is expecting him to take him in. I was going to try and make it a comedy…

FNF: That’s pretty heavy for a comedy.

CE: [laughs] Yeah. So I did this Google search, like, “Ten Things A Drunk Father Would Say” and what came up was a list of things not to do in front of your significant other and I said, “That’s a movie.” I don’t why that clicked with me, but I knew that was the movie. It just fit perfectly. It was easy. I could shoot it at my friend’s house. I had to get a restaurant, but it was [just] two locations. My goal was to make, what I consider, a commercial film. A commercial comedy that you would go and see Seth Rogen in at Harkins, but do it in five minutes, and I did that. I know I did that.

FNF: So since this was your first time on set as a director, what was that like?

CE: I felt a little nervous with the time restraint. The first half of the night, the restaurant shoot, I bullshitted my way through that just trying to figure out what my style would be. What am I going to say to the actors? What do I want them to say? Kind of figuring all that out. Once I got through that portion of it, it was pretty easy going from there. Having fun was important, but also knowing when to work was important and having a great crew was important. I had all that, so it wasn’t hard.   But, if you ask the crew, they’ll probably tell you it was the best catering they ever had.

FNF: Do you feel there was any mistakes that, if you could do it again, you would’ve rectified?

CE: Oh yeah. Taking time, not rushing so much. Being quicker on reshoots. Time restraints, learning not to try and shoot everything in one night so you can get the best out of your actors, so they’re not so tired and ready to kill themselves. But also getting them tired and ready to kill themselves is great for some [scenes].  The editing process was a huge learning experience. We had three or four final cuts of that film. Also, how important it is to have good makeup people, because they saved our ass a lot on that movie.  I feel it was more experience stuff and feel of things, rather than, “Oh hey, I learned this real technical shot. Learned this perfect angle.” I really hadn’t learned any of that stuff, but the feel of a set, how to run a set, getting a feel for the actors, yeah. Were there a lot of things I’d change? Yeah, but I didn’t have the budget.

FNF: Are there any tips you’d like to give to any other first time filmmakers?

CE: Tons. First, be like Renny Harlin. Set yourself to a mediocre level, but crush that mediocre level. [laughs]

No, there is one problem I’ve noticed with short films. Everyone tries to be a superstar on their first short film. Look, if you’re independent you probably don’t have the budget. You’re probably not going to have [the best] script because you can’t afford a great scriptwriter writing it for you. Simple can be hard to do, but there’s a reason simple is hard to do, because it’s probably going to be your best shit.   Sometimes I see films and say, “Man, if you hadn’t tried so hard [to capture something big], you would’ve knocked it out of the park.”

FNF: Exactly, I just covered a filmmaker that said something very similar. That there are many beginning filmmakers that try to capture a big idea they know nothing about.

CE: Right.

FNF: Like someone doing a film about being fifty when they’re twenty-one. What can you know about that?

CE: Exactly. What do I know about being thirty? Everything in my film is somewhat grounded in reality. Yes, one day you’ll have to take a drunk girl home who’ll just ruin your whole day. That will happen. It’s all very relatable stuff. That’s what I mean when I say it’s a mainstream comedy. Then again, you’re always going to get that guy that says, “Oh, film is not meant for dick and fart jokes.” Fuck that, it’s meant to make somebody feel something. I mean, one of the biggest genres is comedy. When the market crashed, people went to the movies because life sucked so bad. Personally I didn’t go and see Twelve Years a Slave. Why, because sometimes I don’t feel like going to the movies and crying my eyes out because white people are so terrible. Don’t get me wrong there’s a place for that shit, but it’s not my shit.

Spotlight on Shorts: Somebody

This week I really wanted to do a genre focus leading up to my first interview. Since the filmmaker I’ll be interviewing specializes primarily on comedy, we’ll be spotlighting a rather ingenious little comedy short entitled “Somebody“, which premiered last month at the Venice Film Festival.

Directed by filmmaker Miranda July, this film is rather unique in that it promotes a real life app called Somebody. The app allows one user to text another user within the vicinity of somebody they wish to tell something to, but don’t have the courage to say to them face to face. It works not unlike Tinder, but rather than searching for booty calls, it searches for brave individuals who can approach complete strangers and relay messages of a personal nature without the emotional disconnection associated with mere texting.

The film is not exactly a commercial, but an actual comedic short that shows the app in action. It’s seems pretty clear from the tone of the film that July is focused less on promoting the app than she is with pointing out the direction society is headed in a world where social interactions are becoming more and more digitized. This appears to be more of a mock social experiment, exploring a world where communication via social media is becoming increasingly dominant over the old school method of personal interaction.

As a film, “Somebody really shines in the area of casting. The actors really do look like anyone you’d find off the streets; complete with the type of diversity we’ve come to expect walking the streets of a big city. This is used to a comedic effect as users of the app selectively choose the most unlikely participants to relay their heartfelt and/or heartbreaking messages to their recipients. This is very apparent in the first scene where we see a small, lanky hipster being “broken up” with a large, bearded man wearing a tracksuit complete with consoling hug.

The film also uses a familiar technique from films like Timecode by showing actors from the previous scene walk past or show up in later scenes to show that each experience is connected. This has a different effect in “Somebody”, as it introduces us to a world where this app has become a standard communication tool that everybody is using. This is also apparent in the way the rest of the world reacts to the app’s users, oftentimes without any surprise, as if usage of the app has become an everyday occurrence.

July’s method of promoting this film as a package deal of sorts is rather creative. It’s possible that she’s making yet another comment of modern day society by suggesting that promoting a short film requires more than just old fashion word of mouth. In an age where new technology is just as highly looked forward to and hyped up as summer blockbuster films, perhaps July is suggesting that in this day in age media and art need to be a combined to have any chance at getting noticed in a culture that has become oversaturated. Either way, it’s an interesting approach to advertising and I look forward to see its effects.

“One Man’s Trash”: The Best Character Driven Short Film Hidden Within a Popular TV Series

Fans of Tiny Furniture, rejoice! Lena Dunham has announced she is directing a new film. I would love to go into the details and tell you that she’s the perfect director to bring Catherine, Called Birdy to the big screen. Alas, I’ve never read that book, so I have absolutely no idea if this is a good fit for her, but while we’re on the topic of Dunham, let’s talk about her most popular contribution to audiences, Girls. More specifically, let’s talk about one particular (and unnecessarily controversial) episode of Girls, “One Man’s Trash”.

From the people I’ve asked about it, Girls appears to be the kind of show you either love or hate. I would argue that due to it’s popularity, clearly more people love it than hate it, but those that I’ve talked to that dislike the show tend to feel the characters are self-centered and entitled. I actually agree with this, but what I’ve always found hypocritical is that people who dislike Girls’ characters for espousing these traits seem to speak endearingly about the characters in Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for possessing the same qualities.

Remember when George's fiance dies and the cast is devastated?  Neither do I.

Remember when George’s fiance dies and the cast is devastated? Neither do I.

With my two cents out of the way, I’d like to try and focus on the particular episode of “One Man’s Trash” without getting into the controversy mentioned earlier, but rather analyze the show as a standalone piece of the series which structure acts as a guideline for creating a well-made, character driven short.

With that out of the way let me now disclose this post is full of SPOILERS!!!!! Those not familiar with the episode, take some time to watch it. /HBO On Demand/Girls/Season2/Episode5/Watch… Ok, back? Commencing post.

The wonderful thing about this episode is that it can really be viewed separate from the rest of the series. So for all of you that said, “screw it.” and continued reading because you figured you had to get caught up on the whole series before viewing “One Man’s Trash” worry not, you don’t. From the get go “One Man’s Trash” introduces its characters well enough that you’ll have a good idea what’s going on. Ray and Hanna begin, outside of the coffee shop they work at, by discussing whether Hanna has been the first to coin the word “Sexit” (as in you leave an event to go have sex). A quick Google search from Ray dashes Hanna’s hopes of adding to the American lexicon as Urban Dictionary describes it as having to make a quick exit after sex.

Much like Pulp Fiction, “One Man’s Trash” introduces our characters in a non-expositional way, letting us get familiar with the characters by hearing them converse and get a feel for their dispositions. The fact that Hanna and Ray are writing up the menu on a chalkboard in front of a coffee shop gives us enough information that we can infer they work there. Giving information about characters without using exposition is one of the hardest parts of the writing process in my opinion. It seems natural that we would inform the audience about the histories of our characters through dialogue, but unfortunately expositional dialogue is boring. Anyone who’s ever been on that particular type of bad date, where the person across from you relies on telling you every little thing about themselves rather than being engaging, can attest to this.

From there we are introduced to Joshua, played by the one and only Patrick Wilson, or as I like to call him, the Everyman’s Everyman Everymen wish to be. Joshua has noticed that trash from the coffee shop has been mysteriously been found in his designated receptacle. As the title suggests, its female cast primarily drives Girls, but Joshua acts as a participant in Hanna’s self-discovery in this particular episode as we will explore. His entrance is a nice transition. We know that his entrance, as mundane as it may seem, will lead to something more.

Just an Average Joe, doing Average Joe stuff!

Just an Average Joe, doing Average Joe stuff!

That something is the fact that Hanna is the one sneaking trash into Joshua’s trashcan. She could have easily let it go, sneaking off into a corner when Joshua confronts Ray and cease to continue trashbombing Joshua’s residence, letting the whole thing just blow over. Instead Hanna makes the extra effort to go directly to Joshua’s Brooklyn brownstone and fess up to the act. Such an aggressive move reveals that there must be some hidden motive to Hanna’s going the extra mile as Joshua is clearly so curious by Hanna’s arrival that he lets her right into his place.

When Hanna and Joshua begin to make out, before even asking each other’s names, we begin to see the episode entering the rising action. Anyone familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid knows this point of storytelling. It is the moment where we the audience know that the actions being presented before will lead to greater conflicts. Sure, it’s possible that Hanna and Joshua could just bang it out, leaving Hanna with the perfect opportunity to “Sexit”, but it’s probably more likely that this action will have its consequences or reveal more about our characters motivations. This is yet another need within a character driven model. The conflicts that arise must often be a choosing of the characters and not something directly derived from the plot.

As Hanna and Joshua continue their two-day tryst with one another, much is revealed about the two of them. We find that the two could not be more different. Beyond age discrepancies, Joshua is a doctor as where Hanna is now recently unemployed. Joshua is recently separated from his wife, Hanna has a hard time keeping a boyfriend. Yet despite their differences, the two seem to need each other, at least for this moment, as the prospect of Hanna leaving compels Joshua to get on his knees and beg her to stay.

This all comes to a head when Hanna begins to truly open up to Joshua about her problems. Despite Joshua lending her his ear, it’s clear he just can’t relate and it becomes apparent that this short romance is beginning to lose its luster. Going back to Freytag’s Pyramid, this is the climax, or the point of no return. What’s said has been said and through Joshua’s reaction we can see that the two of them probably won’t be able to keep the magic going for much longer. With this reveal the mystery is gone. It’s clear to Joshua that Hanna is not just some alluring, carefree nymph, but a person with very real problems, some he may end up having to deal with.

As Hanna wakes up the next morning, Joshua is gone, back to the responsibilities his life demands of him. The fantasy is over and it’s back to reality. As Hanna takes out the trash one last time, her stride has a confident bounce to it, one that suggests that during these last two days she’s taken something very important away. What that is we don’t really know, but we do know that Joshua and Hanna needed something from one another, even if only briefly, and that has changed them for the better.

"Character Arcs", the type that won't give you coronary disease.

“Character Arcs”, the type that won’t give you coronary disease.

This is a particularly good example of how a good, character driven story should come to an end. When dealing with these types of stories, it’s important to show that the conclusion comes from a change or revelation within the character and not by simply solving some event presented through the plot. For example a film like The Wrestler is probably the best example of this. His relationship with his daughter, his wooing of Cassidy are all driven by his journey to come to terms his past as “The Ram”. In these select plot points, he could either succeed or fail just as long as we the audience witness the end result of his soul searching, expressed when he decides to give the crowd what they want and perform his signature move despite the harm it will most likely cause him.

For those of you interested in creating more character driven stories, I believe “One Man’s Trash” as well as Dunham’s Tiny Furniture serve as good examples to those looking to understand the type of structure these films require. Say what you will about Lena Dunham and Girls, even if you don’t like her characters or writing in general, there’s no arguing that the cast primarily drives her stories. Unlike shows like Entourage, which repeatedly place the same set of characters in various situations, Dunham’s stories are a result of characters trying to find their way through life and the situations that arise from that journey.

Spotlight on Shorts: Factory 293

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92579604″>FACTORY293</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This week I really wanted to focus on cinematography in film and how nailing it effectively can add to the production value of a film without necessarily adding to the budget. Although having a top of the line HD camera and a large budget certainly will increase the look of a film, I’m always impressed by filmmakers that do a lot with fairly little by taking the time to study shot selections and how they translate to an audience visually. I was lucky to find a short last night called “Factory 293” that’s a fantastic example of this.

“Factory 293” is a period piece written and directed by Roderick MacKay. Set in WWII during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, it follows a factory in the middle of the Russian tundra that produces artillery shells for tanks, really big guns or Soviet era Jaegers specifically designed to take on Nazi Kaiju (how the hell am I supposed to know, I’m not an artillery expert).   Grigori runs the factory and is having an affair with Yelena, a factory worker. From the outset we know that something is clearly bothering Grigori. He rejects Yelena’s advances and glares menacingly at the picture of Stalin hanging on his wall.

When the power goes out, Yelena is charged with turning it back on. In the attempt to restore power, she finds a lone soviet soldier out in the tundra on the brink of freezing to death. From there we learn more about Grigori, the mysterious soldier and the extent of Yelena and Grigori’s relationship.

I think the most surprising thing about this film is that it’s shot far, far away from the frostbitten lands of Russia in sunny Perth, Australia. Even more impressive, is that despite clearly looking like it took place on the planet Hoth, it was shot in the middle of summer. Through the use of fans, fake snow and some incredibly impressive green screening and digital artistry, they managed to turn Perth into something out of Kris Kringle’s nightmares. All this was done within a relatively small budget estimated at $100,000 dollars.

For those of you interested in the process of how MacKay managed to pull this off, it’s chronicled in a Behind the Scenes video below:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88841934″>FACTORY293 Behind The Scenes</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Despite the impressive digital work in the movie, what really struck me was the choice of shots MacKay went with to tell his story. One specific shot is an overhead angle capturing the portrait of Stalin ominously overhead of Grigori. The shot hints to the ever-looming presence of Stalinist Russia, mimicking the paranoia the dictator was so well-known for, his eyes constantly on the lookout for dissenters to the Soviet cause.

MacKay also does some impressive work with camera focus, specifically while shooting down the barrel of a gun, many of the shots seemingly coming from the point of view of the targets.

All of this excellent cinematography enhances the film further, giving it a very polished look for, relatively, pennies on the dollar. This demonstrates what good shot selection can do for a film, drawing the audience further into the film by making the framing and movement of the camera just as much a part of the storytelling process as the dialogue spoken by the characters. This is a lesson I feel a lot of beginning filmmakers can learn greatly from, that camera position is more than a matter of just getting the actors in frame. Let’s not forget that films are moving pictures and not just a collection of static shots.

Are Comedians the New Indie Actors?

Kristen Wiig, Steve Carell, Rashida Jones, Will Forte, Adam Scott. You probably recognize these actors from SNL or other prime time comedy shows like Parks and Recreation or The Office. Although these comedians are most known for their roles in some of the most popular comedy shows on TV, what are they up to when those shows are off-season? Some of you might be saying, “Uh, big comedy movies, like Anchorman 2 and wasn’t Adam Scott in that Walter Mitty movie where Ben Stiller skateboards cross-country with a really tan Sean Penn or something? Oh, and wasn’t Rashida Jones in, like, eight romantic comedies with Paul Rudd…”. Well, yeah, ok, a lot of the films these actors have been in are big time Hollywood comedies, but dammit this blog is about indie filmmaking (most times) so we’re going to stick to that theme. Plus, a little searching and you’ll find that these actors aren’t all chuckles and laughs for big paychecks.

I recently came across a great film starring Adam Scott called The Vicious Kind.   In it, Scott plays a character far removed from his lovable, geeky, tabletop game playing character from Parks and Rec. Instead, we find a fast-talking, depressed asshole, brilliantly played with a seething anger, which makes you love and hate him all at the same time. Although I have always respected Scott’s acting ability from Parks and the Starz original show Party Down, this was a complete departure from these roles.

Adam Scott's other talent?  Wearing a suit like a champ.

Adam Scott’s other talent? Wearing a suit like a champ.

This caused me to look up other films similar to The Vicious Kind courtesy of Netflix’s surprisingly reliable aggregate system. This led me to Take this Waltz a drama about infidelity where Seth Rogen plays a husband whose wife cheats on him. Although there are some comedic moments in his performance, he mostly plays it straight as a man unable to communicate to his wife that their marriage may be in turmoil.   Sarah Silverman is also in this film as a recovering alcoholic who has a scene-stealing moment towards the end of the film. Just like Rogen there are moments of comedy in her performance, but for the most part she plays the part of a women struggling with addiction, conscious of the risk of self-destruction.

Any of you who may have seen Celeste and Jesse Forever may have seen Rashida Jones play opposite Andy Samburg in this dramedy about two people who break up and attempt to continue their friendship.  Through most of the film, Jones plays Celeste with a underplayed sadness at learning that Jesse has moved on and found someone new.  Not only does Jones bring a more dramatic performance than we are used to seeing her in, but she also co-wrote the film.

The most notable example of this new trend I feel has to be that of Will Forte. Everyone probably remembers him as an SNL regular for a decade, but his recent work in last year’s Alexander Payne directed film Nebraska earned him an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nebraska is a fantastic drama made all the better by Forte’s performance as a son trying to reconnect with his ailing father played by the incomparable Bruce Dern.

Bruce Dern looks absolutely fantastic for 78.

Bruce Dern looks absolutely fantastic for 78.

Perhaps it’s the fact that a lot of these actors come cheaper, but possess their own fan base from their respective comedic roles. I don’t think there is much argument that TV is in a sort of Golden Age. Many popular shows command the same amount of production value as some Hollywood pictures nowadays.  As a result, more people are becoming TVaphiles and many of the shows we see on the small screen have huge followings. You may remember that while back in the day popular comedians from SNL would immediately move into long-lasting film careers, shows like 30 Rock, Parks and Rec and Brooklyn 99 have shown us that many are now flocking to TV to further their careers. The combination of these two points could certainly account for the demand to fill independent movies with these types of actors. Not only are you getting actors equipped with an already large fan base, but also as many of these indie films have shown us, these comedians have the chops to take on more dramatic roles.

Personally as a fan of sketch comedy shows like SNL and standup comedy in general, I hope to see this trend continue. Nothing entertains me more than seeing an actor or comedian play against type and surprise me with hidden talent that they may otherwise not get to showcase in their respective fortes.