Month: November 2014

Spotlight On Shorts: Dark Times

Whether you love them or hate them, one thing’s for sure, holidays are right around the corner and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. For the next month leading up to Christmas I’ll be spotlighting select holiday themed shorts for your viewing pleasure. For our first freakishly festive film I give you “Dark Times”, directed by Peter Horn and Jared Marshall, a tight five-minute short shot completely in the first person.

The directors’ choice to shoot POV gives this film a feel like being on a Disneyland ride. Try to imagine Star Tours set in a zombie apocalypse during Christmas time and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about. The tight running time combined with the shaky cam really amp up the pace of this film.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how quickly we’re thrust into the action. There is no introduction of characters. The film simply doesn’t have time for it. We follow a man, we can only assume is a friend of ours, through a dark forest evading the undead and the like. As we continue through the mayhem that ensues, we are introduced to other zombie apocalypse tropes we have come to expect from the genre. The filmmakers even spare us the end credits as if to protect us from anything that might bog down the fast pace of the film.

An interesting thing happens about halfway through the film that changes the mood and pacing. I won’t give it away, but watch how Horn and Marshall play with our perspective by use of color and camera movement. Those familiar to first person gaming will recognize some of the tricks the directors use, which lead me to believe that Horn and Marshall have probably played their fair share of Call of Duty. Really, this could make a pretty good video game trailer.

Those of you looking to pick up some tips on pacing should give this one a view. “Dark Times” relies on zombie fandom and knowledge of the genre to tell most of the story for us. What’s left is an interesting study on the many ways POV can be used in film.

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Film Rant: Forget Your Screenplay. Protect Your Ideas.

I understand filmmaker’s concerns with protecting their scripts. Sometimes it’s to keep an ending secret till it hits festivals. Sometimes it’s the fear that someone with immediate resources will take their story and proceed to production before they do. It’s certainly possible that either of these scenarios could occur, but the less known you are, the less you have to worry about this happening.

Now, I’m not saying you should post a copy of your script every Starbucks bulletin board in hopes some visiting producer will read it while he waits for the barista to finish his gingerbread latte. You should take all the precautions you can to protect your work. What bothers me is how anal writers and filmmakers get over keeping their scripts a secret, yet they have no problem blurting out the entire plot of their film before the script is even written.

Let me set the stage for an example:

You’re at a party with other filmmakers maybe discussing what the best Coen movie is (Barton Fink) or which has the best universe Star Wars or Star Trek (Battlestar Galactica). Eventually someone, probably six PBR’s deep at this point, asks what you’re up to and you begin to describe your film career. Not to be outdone, your new friend begins to tell you about the idea he just came up with for the perfect film. It could be anything, but it’ll almost certainly involve aliens and a twist at the end that is totally different than a million other movies because this one has aliens.

Perfect ending

Too many people seem to have no problem discussing with complete strangers future films they have absolutely no ownership over, while sparing no expense at protecting scripts they already have copyright over through simply writing them. Nothing is stopping someone from stealing an idea. Ideas are not yours.

Hell, I’m convinced I came up with the idea The Wrestler. It’s a great film, I know, I invented it in my mind. The only difference was in my film it was a boxer and the budget was $120 because that’s all I had in my account. For all I know whoever wrote that film was sitting in the Denny’s booth behind me at four in the morning while I regaled my friends with my million dollar idea in one of my many whiskey induced tirades.

Yeah, it was pretty much this.

Yeah, it was pretty much this.

There’s nothing wrong with telling your new film idea to your friends, your family or whomever you have a long-term, genital-rubbing relationship with, just make sure you can trust them. Remember, screenplays are tangible. Ideas are not. You can’t claim thoughts.

Writing with Actors in Mind

It should go without saying that there are different types of writing. We all seem to instinctively know the difference between a poem and a novel even if we have no understanding of the structural differences between the two. Yet, yet when it comes to screenwriting there is one thing I notice many filmmakers misuse in their scripts that really doesn’t do any kind of service.

Narrative.

What is Narrative?

Narrative is really any sequence of words or pictures that tell a story. Your film is most likely a narrative and the way you edit it together results in a cohesive story. The same goes for writing, the way you combine a sentence like “Bill reached down, picked up the big stick and threw it to his dog.” tells us enough about Bill, a stick, his dog and how they are all connected to envision it as a story. Now keeping with the three subjects but changing it around, “There is Bill, a dog and a big stick in the air.” really doesn’t tell a story as much as just describes what’s objectively present.

Or should Bill throw me a ball?  Seems more poetic.

Or should Bill throw me a ball? Seems more poetic.

How It’s Used Incorrectly In Screenplays

Although a film in its entirety works to create a narrative, the narrative I’m specifically referring to is the type that takes place in the “Action” element or narrative description of a screenplay. It’s the big, block of words that you probably skim through quickly to get to the dialogue. It stretches from margin to margin rather than kept to the center of the page like dialogue.

An example would be:

Suddenly there’s banging and growling at the gate. The group huddles into the corner. Chad aims his gun at the gate. Suddenly, the banging stops. Chad turns to Bernie. He speaks to him slowly, like you would a child.

CHAD

Are you ok?

BERNIE

I’m not deaf.

SHILOH

What were those things?

CHAD

I don’t know.

What some writers don’t realize is that there are certain narratives that specifically don’t read well on film. In regards to acting, narratives describing the past or the internal emotions of characters oftentimes are worthless because we can’t show those types of things. It’s important to make sure that all narrative is, what is sometimes referred as, “Actable”, or in other words, something that an actor can physically portray and strays away from exposition or what the character is thinking.

All you mimes know what I'm talking about.

All you mimes know what I’m talking about.

Actable vs. Non-Actable

 

Novels read much different from screenplays for the simple reason that they are written be read, not acted out. In them, the writer often must describe the feelings or past situations of a character to tell the whole story. It is not uncommon to read a line like, “Danny loved cheesecake. Every Christmas Danny would make help his mother in the kitchen, preparing the crust as his mother mixed the cheese and milk. It was his fondest memory of her. Since then, every cheesecake he ordered, in every town he visited, was his way of honoring her memory.”

This sentence makes plenty of sense and tells the story of Danny, his mother and why he loves cheesecake. In a novel that requires our imagination to fully envision the story this type of description is fine, but if we were to film this scene we could only do so in pictures or have it explained within the dialogue. There is no way you can expect an actor to portray this. I don’t care how good of an actor someone is, there is no way you can act out cheesecake being your “favorite” food. You can act out that you enjoy a cheesecake (commercial actors specialize in this), but to act out that level of detail is simply impossible.

Still there are many scripts I read where a writer takes up six to seven lines of action to describe something like a character’s look that’s a result of his father’s physical abuse toward him that haunts him to this day, forcing him to punch kittens on the weekends etc., etc. In the attempt to describe a pivotal event in the character’s life, the writer spends an unnecessary amount of time and space on a page writing out something that can’t be filmed.

How this Effects Actors

I previously joked about how the Action element is the part of a script many people skim over to get to the dialogue. If there is any person that is going to pay a load of attention to this these sections it’s going to be the actors, because it tells them what they’re going to do. There are many actors, especially seasoned ones, who recognize non-actable narrative as useless and frustrating.

As someone who used to act long, long ago, nothing brought me greater joy then to connecting with a character written well, namely because a good script makes for a good production and I was a horrible actor. Now on the other hand, if you give a good actor a well-written character, the result is almost always a thing of beauty. So imagine how an actor must feel when a writer has created a great character, but has given them nothing to work with. It’s like handing someone a million dollars that they can only spend on socks. Sure socks are great and all but the best things are just out of reach, like high-powered sports cars and sex toys.

Yep, this is a real thing.

Yep, this is a real thing.

Actable narrative isn’t really hard to recognize. A good rule of thumb is to go by the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing, keeping in mind that filmmaking literally requires us to show things to an audience. You could also ask an actor to go over your script to point out anything that isn’t actable. Most importantly though, always keep in mind that film is a visual medium and that a script should always be written to represent that.

Spotlight on Shorts: Self Esteem: Jenny Slate

In 2009 Jenny Slate was fired from Saturday Night Live for a slip of the tongue. Despite SNL producing a number of controversial skits, there are some words you simply can’t say on network TV at 11:30 at night. This one happened to start with “F” end with “G” and rhymes with “sucking” which SNL can be from time to time.

Since then Slate has been seen in just about everything from Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the recently amazing Obvious Child. Apart from her success in TV and Film, Slate and her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, have made a number of short films together including the popular and heart melting “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.  “Self Esteem: Jenny Slate” is another one of their many short film contributions directed by Fleischer and starring Slate. It’s a film that shows the dichotomy between expectation and reality as a group of mysterious onlookers watch and comment on Jenny Slate’s life. Like “Marcel The Shell”, “Self Esteem” manages to be humorous and heart breaking at the same time.

What particularly struck me about “Self Esteem” is the usage of conflicting visual and audio elements. In it, we never see the onlookers who are clearly enamored with Slate and spend the whole film speculating on how amazing it must be to be her. In contrast, we have Jenny Slate, who says virtually nothing. Through subtle looks and actions Slate shows the audience the reality of her life, which is often in direct conflict with her onlookers observations. Through voiceover “Self Esteem” creates an unreliable narrator in the onlookers while Slate’s actions convey her true story to the audience, presumably unbeknownst to her.  What results is a film that manages to address how the expectations put on us can belie the realities we face everyday while also managing to comment on the dangers of putting people of fame on a pedestal.

This mixture of contrasting audio and video has been used to varying degrees in film.   David Lynch relied on it heavily to jar the audience in his film Eraserhead. In other films, music can been chosen to conflict with the feelings audiences commonly experience when viewing scenes of extreme violence like in Reservoir Dogs.

Audio doesn’t always have to complement a film. Sometimes by deliberately choosing what we hear to conflict with the mood of what we see, a filmmaker can explore complicated scenarios without any one character actually addressing it. What results is a film that interacts with the viewer, relying on their senses to connect with the underlying message rather than telling it outright. As an experiment, try watching “Self Esteem” on mute. Note how the message of the film is lost without the onlooker’s constant narration. By doing this you may get a better understanding of how audio and video can work together to tell a story.

Film Rant: Moving Film to TV

I remember back when I was growing up that the rule was if you had a successful TV show you had to follow it up with feature film. This is apparent in films like The X-Files, Police Squad!, Firefly, Sex and the City. The list is endless especially considering that we still haven’t left the age of giving every possible old TV show a modern film remake (did we really need a Mod Squad movie?)

But it would appear with in this new golden age of TV that things are beginning to reverse. It’s becoming more and more popular to take movies (some released as early as 2002) and give them the full television treatment. Although this is nothing new, (M*A*S*H* was a film that spawned a TV show) the list of TV shows based off films coming out within the next 2 years is pretty extensive.

This year I caught two such series. Fargo, an amazing series that garnered an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries and From Dusk Till Dawn, which is a TV show based off a film.

This got me thinking about what movies I would like to see as a TV series as well as some casting choices to fill their most iconic roles.

Star Trek: The Next Next Generation

TNNG

Ok, before I get my Platinum Nerd card taken away from me, yes I’m perfectly aware that Star Trek was a TV series before it was a movie and that there actually is a new Star Trek series that tries to capture the look and feel of the original. But I argue that since JJ Abram’s rebooted the series it’s through that continuity that a new series should be born and what better way than through The Next Next Generation.

Whether die-hard Trek fans like it or not, the Abrams films are highly popular, and as such, should be the new direction of the series. What makes the idea of a rebooted TNG so appealing is that it can continue on from the timeline that Abram’s has created while simultaneously explaining some perplexing things that I feel exist in the new films.

Like for instance, what the hell is this?

Not an android!

Not an android!

That’s 0718 a Lieutenant that served on the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has been explained that 0718 is NOT an android or a robot, but a human who integrated himself with cybernetic parts and coincidently changed his name to a model number, because that’s not at all common of androids or robots.

It seems clear to me that these new films have a heightened level of technology that simply didn’t exist in the original series like the ability to teleport from planet to planet and resurrection blood. It would stand to reason that these new technological advancements should have an impact on characters like Data who appear 70 years after the last voyage of Kirk and his fleet.

This could open up all new story possibilities. What could result is a future where technology can create a Data that is virtually indistinguishable from actual humans. Data’s interactions with others would present a new conflict in a world where the definition of humanity is blurred. Furthermore, his search to become more human and less android could take new turn if people were threatened by the possibility of his kind replacing them someday.

Think less this:

Celebrity City

And more this:

#6

In this future the threat of technology is more apparent as a result of Scotty creating new warp systems and the synthesizing of Kahn DNA.

Who should play Picard?

For me the answer is simple. Cory Stoll.

Corey Stoll Picard

Cory Stoll isn’t particularly well-known, but he has an impressive resumé. You may know him from the ill-fated Law and Order: LA where he murdered Tom Selleck and stole his mustache.

L&O Cory Stoll

But you film fans probably recognize him most from his portrayal of Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Make it so.

Make it so.

In my opinion Stoll can bring just a little swag to Picard that modern fans of the movies will appreciate. I mean why should Kirk get all the green chicks?   Maybe we can finally have a Picard who’ll forgo tea time and make a damn move on Beverly Crusher already.

The Legolas Power Hour

300891id5a_TheHobbit_TDOS_Legolas_BusShelter_48inW_x_70inH.indd

I don’t care how many people claim to hate Legolas, the fact of the matter remains, when a giant battle sequence occurs in any of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings films every subconscious in that entire theater is begging for Legolas to show up. You know it, I know it and more importantly Peter Jackson knows it. Why else would he include him in the new Hobbit films, complete with his own storyline?

Let’s be honest, as hilarious as it is to see a Gimli repeatedly herpa derp his way across a battlefield, the joke can wear thin after a while.   The real excitement comes from that volley of arrows expertly aimed through eyes so deep you want to swim in them. Don’t lie, you felt it too.

Shhh, I hear fanboys calling.

Shhh, I hear fanboys calling.

What I propose is a retelling of the entire events of The Hobbit and LOTR in a series of hour-long television episodes told through the eyes of our favorite arrow-slinging elf. This would allow Jackson to accomplish two things that he didn’t manage to pull off in the films.

One, create a series that encompasses every possible scenario from the books, no matter how inconsequential.

Two, manage to jam Legolas into every possible frame.

By my calculations, I predict Jackson will be able to accomplish this in just under 17 seasons.

Who should play Legolas?

Who else? Orlando Bloom! I mean, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Plus, I’m sure he can take some time out of granting the collective wish of the entire planet with his fists to get back to some acting.

The Adventures of Jack and Wang and Jack

Adventures of Wang and Jack

As a child one my favorite movies was John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. It had everything an American kid could ask for in the 80’s. Jim Henson-like puppetry? Got it. Martial Arts? All day. To top it all off it’s told from the perspective of a tongue in cheek, all-American braggart by the name of Jack Burton who’s the combination of John Wayne, Indiana Jones and Ash Williams all rolled into one. Despite all of this, Jack is not the most capable character in the film; that honor goes to Wang, whose girlfriend is kidnapped, spurring on the conflict.  As a result, Jack is really just the sidekick of a high-flying, confident, ass kicking asian, making the film like Green Hornet in reverse, but with monsters.

What’s interesting about the film is that its structure leaves something to be desired. Even as a kid I was curious how all the characters seemed to know each other. It’s clear from their opening scene that Jack and Wang are close friends who both possess take no shit attitudes. One would assume that these two couldn’t have possibly have gotten along unless their friendship was forged in fires of countless adventures. Even Eddie, Wang’s friend, mentions how much Wang talks about Jack. Beyond that, Wang knows Gracie Law, a lawyer (obviously, her name is Law) who has a reputation for getting into trouble. Gracie is clearly close to Wang and his family, as shown early in the film when she walks right through the backdoor of the Wang family restaurant without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. Not to mention everyone in Chinatown knows Egg Shen, a man with mystical powers whose name Carpenter clearly got off a Chinese take out menu.

The point is, everyone in this film has history together and none of it is ever explained.

What I propose is a television series that focuses on the origin of Wang and Jack’s friendship and the adventures that follow. The pilot could involve Jack making a routine delivery to San Francisco in his infamous truck, “The Pork Chop Express”, where he meets Wang for the first time. From there, Jack’s job as a trucker can allow the two to go from state to state, righting wrongs and saving the day.

But here’s the kicker.

In following with the theme of the movie, although Jack is driving the truck and the story, ironically he’s just along for the ride. All of the conflicts the two face will be a result of Wang’s sense of justice and his need to do right, as where Jack only goes along to fulfill his own self-interests (eg, Money, women, ego, The Pork Chop Express).

Who should play Jack Burton?

Who could possibly follow Kurt Russel? It’s like his entire face is just one giant cocked eyebrow. The guy started his career playing Elvis for god’s sake… at age TEN!

Luckily though, I managed to use some of those top-notch researching skills I learned in college to find a replacement. By Google searching images of “All American Actors” and carefully deliberating for five seconds, I finally settled on the fifth or sixth picture down.

Behold, I give you Adam Mayfield!

New Jack Burton

Who is he? I’m sure that’s a question Adam’s agent is still trying to answer. He used to be on All My Children and most recently some series with Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth, that’s absolutely not 90210. Other than that, his only claim to fame is that a virtual nobody with a film blog just named him the new Jack Burton. Don’t believe me? Check out this Taco Bell commercial.

Look into that man’s furrowed brow and tell me you don’t want a quesadilla. He’s a perfect fit, because much like that quesadilla Jack Burton’s entire being is held together by one key element, a whole lot of cheese.