Tips

Know Your Audience

For anyone who has attended a production meeting for a new film idea, there are always some common questions that come up. Queries about the script, props, lighting, sound and budget are going to be bandied about back and forth ad nauseam till the film is shot and in the can. As a person who’s primarily familiar with working with indie filmmakers in a much smaller market, one question that rarely comes up is “To whom are we making this for?” This is one aspect of filmmaking that I feel early filmmakers and indie directors working in small markets don’t seem to bother with too much. They often work to get the film shot and edited and hope whoever is interested shows up, but this is not how Hollywood or successful indie filmmakers see it.

You’ve probably heard a million stories about how Hollywood will green-light a film before even a single line of dialogue is ever written. To those of us that see film as an art form, these types of stories paint Hollywood as an industry solely interested in making money. To all you idealistic artists out there, you’re 100% correct; Hollywood’s main priority is raking in millions regardless of the quality of their product. This is why every film student talks shit about Michael Bay while driving their parents’ cars to the local art house theater, and he’s speeding to Hugh Hefner’s mansion in a McLaren. Still, just because a company or entity’s mission might be the absolute opposite of your own, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t emulate the things they do right, and one thing they’re damn good at is knowing who to target their films to.

"I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked." Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

“I spent more money on my hair than you did on your film. Tell me again how much TMNT sucked.”
Photo by kaje_yomama / CC 2.0

Now, I’m not saying you should necessarily read the box office trends this year and just copy whatever’s popular. You be you. Make the film you want to make, but at least ask yourself who you’re making this film for. Many of you have already heard the term “target audience” and probably just assume they’re out there somewhere, but it’s more than that. It’s important that you know the type of film you’re making, and more importantly, find out who likes that type of film. Oh, you’re making a zombie film? Try promoting at a local showing of Dawn of The Dead. This seems obvious, but as I said earlier rarely have I been to a production meeting where someone asked, “Who are we targeting this film to?”

A lot of early filmmakers treat the search for their audience like a game of Battleship. Once they’re done with the film, they begin to haphazardly send it out to whatever festival comes to mind till they get sick of spending their paychecks on countless rejection letters. The film is then shelved, but hey, at least they get to put it on their IMDB page.

"E4? MIss! Here's your rejection letter from Tribeca!" Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

“E4?
MIss! Here’s your rejection letter from Tribeca!”
Photo by jking89 / CC 2.0

This is the result of not having a plan of attack and not taking the time to select the type of venues that will produce the most exposure in the long run. There are literally hundreds of film festivals in the country. Rather than sending them out to the closest ones or the ones you think will be easy to get into, try sending them to the festivals you know your audience will be at. Is it a comedy? Instead of spending $30 on the submission fee to your in-state film festival, why not try submitting to a festival like the Laugh Out Loud Short Film Fest. Is it a sci-fi? Many comic conventions now have their very own film competitions for their fans. It’s important to show your film to the type of people who will enjoy it and keep talking about it. This works to become a word of mouth marketing strategy, which is more successful now than it’s ever been, what with the popularity of social media.

It doesn’t take too much effort to find your audience. If you enjoy the type of films you make, they’re probably going to be at a lot of the venues you wish you could go to. A quick glance at local film showings or a simple Google search for festivals that specialize in your type of film can introduce you to the type of people who will keep talking about your film. To sum it up, make a plan and do some research. Don’t leave anything up to chance.

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Get Good By Reading Bad

Ask any accomplished writer or English professor and they will tell you that the secret to good writing is reading a lot. Needless to say this is good advice. Most of the greats in literature often built upon the works of previous literary giants. The same goes for screenwriting. Although the vast majority of people will only consume the contents of a script in its final iteration (the screen), budding screenwriters can learn much from reading a film in script form rather than going to your local theater. There are great resources online for this such as Script-O-Rama, Simply Scripts and sometimes from the very companies that produce them.

As useful as it can be reading Oscar nominated pieces of work, I’ve found that immersing yourself in the works of geniuses is only half of the journey. What I’m going to suggest will sound counterproductive, but has helped me immensely in my writing.

Read shitty scripts.

I’m being serious here. Get out there and spend some time reading scripts that could not, should not, ever make it to a screen.

If you’re wondering how reading absolute crap could possibly make you a better writer, your skepticism isn’t unwarranted. It’s not like universities assign copies US Weekly to their students along with Catcher In The Rye, but allow me to explain. The truth is it’s easier to find a turd than a truffle, or to be less analogous, bad writing is easier to detect than a rare work of genius.

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd. Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd.
Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

So, how can this help you in your own writing?

I’ve found that one of the hardest things for writers to do is catch their own mistakes. That’s why many great writers hand their work to their peers to look over. Like it or not, you’re biased of your own work. Handing it to a pair of fresh, trustworthy eyes can reveal errors that were originally invisible to you. But wouldn’t it also be nice to pick up on those errors before handing it over to a friend? This is where reading bad scripts come in to play.

Once you begin to recognize common issues in bad writing (and believe me you’ll notice them), it’s easier to recognize them in your own scripts. If you notice that a script fails to introduce a character thoroughly or doesn’t effectively solve the protagonist’s core dilemma (I find this to be a common one), you can then actually see the result of not doing so. This is something that you most likely won’t encounter if you spend time only reading good scripts. Just like a seasoned quarterback who can seemingly sense a blitz coming, recognizing bad writing will become second nature, allowing you to sidestep it within your own writing.

That sucks! Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

“That sucks!”
Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

So where do you find bad scripts?

If you’re active in your local film community, they’re probably all around you, at house parties, festivals, etc. Almost everybody has a script or is writing one that they plan to make into a film. All you have to do is ask to read it. Although early filmmakers can be a paranoid bunch, sometimes constantly in fear of having their work stolen, many others will be pleased you’re taking an interest in their screenplay. By taking an interest in reading amateur screenplays, you’ll come across a wide spectrum of good and bad scripts.

Another good way to read a multitude of good and bad scripts is by volunteering to be a judge at a local screenplay competition. Film festivals receive a slew of submissions and are always looking for volunteers to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Finally, there are also local meetup groups for amateur screenwriters that you can find online. This is not only a good place to read a wide range of scripts of varying quality, but also a place where you can receive feedback on your own screenplays.

Now comes the word of warning.

As the spirit animal of my blog would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In your endeavor to read more bad scripts, one rule you must always follow is DON’T BE A DICK.

Unless it's this Dick. Be like this Dick. Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

Unless it’s this Dick. Be like this Dick.
Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

The people who share their work with you will most likely want constructive feedback so they can also improve on their writing. Even if the script is absolutely atrocious, this is not an opportunity to ridicule someone or share their work with your friends so you can all laugh at their expense. No matter what your skill level is, there is one thing that always will be true, everyone writes shit. I write shit, you write shit, even Paul Haggis probably has bottles of shit he hides from the world like Howard Hughes. The goal is for everyone to bask in everyone else’s shit so we can all produce less shit for the world. Keep that in mind. This is not an opportunity to be an elitist or to make yourself feel better about your own shit by finding something shittier.

Now that I’ve broken my record for how many times I can plug the word “shit” into one paragraph; reading bad scripts is a wonderful way to see common writing mistakes in action. By building an instinctive recognition for these mistakes you can better bypass them in your own writing.

Spotlight on Shorts: Treevenge

One sad Christmas memory I recall was the annual disposing of the tree. My parents would drive out to the designated dumping grounds and throw the wilting symbol of Christmas spirit back to nature from whence it came. I can still envision the hundreds of dead trees piled upon one another waiting to become mulch or maybe those paper containers Chinese food comes in. To this day I still consider this often overlooked holiday moment to be cruel, despite the fact that I still have no problem eating the hell out of a bacon wrapped filet of beef.

If you’ve ever wanted to see humans finally receiving some comeuppance for their crimes against nature, I present to you “Treevenge” a film by Jason Eisener. Any of you who are familiar with Eisener’s other major work, Hobo With A Shotgun, shouldn’t be too shocked at what they see in “Treevenge”. Much like Hobo With a Shotgun, “Treevenge” takes much from gore-heavy exploitation films (Translation: This video is NSFW). Virtually everyone in this film is subject to a violent death, and I mean everyone. “Treevenge” is not a film that follows any conventional movie “rules”; in fact, it seems more likely that Eisener is consciously trying to break them.

Normally, I’m not a fan of unnecessary sex or violence in movies. Not to say that I’m against sex and violence in and of themselves, but I prefer that there be some justification for their existence in film and not just filmed to increase ticket sales. I make an exception when I come across the type of over-the-top exploitation found in a film like “Treevenge”. This type of exploitation can be found in a lot of Sam Raimi’s work as well as most of Troma’s film catalogue. In films like these you’re almost certain to find insane levels of violence, sexism and objectification, but it comes at you in such absurdly large doses it can’t possibly be taken seriously.

“Treevenge” does some very interesting things with point of view. We actually witness the film from the trees’ perspective. The humans in the film are such overblown caricatures personifying violence and evil, it’s hard to really feel any remorse for them when the bloodshed begins. Furthermore, every death, no matter how taboo or repulsive, is done with a sort of “wink, wink” to the audience. Each death comes complete with some kind of gimmick to make it even more unbelievable. As a result the audiences’ compassion is on the side of these murdering trees who dole out violence in such tongue and cheek way it comes off as entertainment.

Whether you’re a fan of over-the-top exploitation films or not, “Treevenge” still manages to serve as a lesson of how point of view can be used to instill compassion in a protagonist. Even when the protagonists act in ways that are clearly immoral, compassion can still be established by seeing the story through their eyes. And yes, I’m aware trees don’t have eyes.

Spotlight On Shorts: Tanghi Argentini

We’re continuing our Spotlight of holiday themed shorts with a short film from Belgium, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. “Tanghi Argentini” or “Argentine Tango” is a film directed by Guy Thys and written by Geert Verbanck, that tells the story of André, a middle aged office worker, who makes the age old mistake of lying on an online dating site to impress a girl. When André strikes a date with a Tango aficionado, he must convince Franz, a co-worker who’s the cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Yul Brenner, to school him in the art of dance.

The first thing you might notice about the film is the muted color palette. Blacks, greys, and whites dominate most of the scenery. Very rarely do we get a green from a Christmas tree in the background or yellow from the sun shining through a distant window. This seems to highlight the drab and boring existence that is André’s life. Even Franz, who is supposed to be sparking the passion in him, is dressed like he’s going to a funeral most of the film. The first time we really ever see a noticeable change is when André shows up to his date wearing a red rose in his lapel.

This is all very deliberate, as we are finally introduced to André’s date, Suzanne, in a striking red dress and sultry lipstick. This sudden injection is a great example of how color can be used as a kind of subtext in film. In this case, red can be representing André’s passion, as it has finally begun to flourish with his learning the Tango. Suzanne, on the other hand, is practically brimming with it, as she represents André’s escape from his colorless life.

Something else to note is the lighting. “Tanghi Argentini” is lit very similar to a film noir, with dim lights casting hard shadows. This gives an air of mystery to the film, possibly suggesting that not everything is as it seems.

Like many good shorts, “Tanghi Argentini” does take an unexpected twist, the kind that will have you going back to the beginning asking, “How did I miss that?” As good as the story is, I think the best thing to take away from the film is how Thys uses lighting and color to visually guide us through the story. This has been used to much effect in films such as Shindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. Filmmakers should take note on how “Tanghi Argentini” again proves how good cinematography can be used to tell a story just as dialogue can.

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.

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: 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.

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.