Wednesday, 29 June 2011

"Its not your job to be as confused as Nigel!"

"No one knows who they were or what they were doing..."
Many years ago, I was asked to help out on a promotional film - You know the sort: They make an advert of the film they intend to make, then show the trailer to potential investors etc. Never a good idea in my book, as the 'fake trailer' will never be fully representative of the finished feature film. In fact, it can have a detrimental effect: If your trailer looks cheap (because you don't have a budget), then your feature's prospects do not look rosy.

So I agreed to be the sound man/boom op for the trailer - for free (it was all last-minute rush-rush, and I figured it could be interesting). I arrive on location at an abattoir, somewhere in saaaarf Laaaandon. I'm the first person there... An hour later, I'm still the first person there. Hmm. Finally, the crew roll up in dribs and drabs; vans arrive and equipment is unloaded.

I meet the producer - my point of contact - and he thanks me for coming aboard at short notice. He leads me through to the equipment: There is a mountain of flight cases, tripods, dollys, jibs, mics, camera equipment...
Like a Terminator reeling off his shopping list of Uzi 9mm's and Phased plasma rifles in the 40-watt range, the producer had plucked every bit of equipment off the shelf. So why was I working for free, again?

Termy buys up the shop; Dick Miller buys the farm.
Anyway, I grabbed a mic from a selection of FOUR (we were shooting in doors, at a single location), found an SQN mixer... but nothing to record on to. I asked the producer how they were planning on recording sound - His response was to look at me, incredulous. So I asked again. "Well, you plug the mic into the camera!"

They were shooting on 16mm film.

After I explained that 16mm doesn't record sound as well as picture, things suddenly got serious. It was a Sunday; most hire companies were shut. The producer fled in search of a DAT machine whilst the camera crew shot the sequence - minus sound. The steadi-cam shot was rehearsed; I made a note of every sound I could hear... and waited for my DAT machine.

Eight hours later, the producer returns with a DAT machine. The shoot was drawing to an end, so I quickly got set up and ready to go. I re-created the route taken by the camera operator, recording all of the sounds (machinery, doors opening etc.) - but all I could hear was voices. People going home. Flight cases loading into vans. Pizza orders being shouted out. After the fifth time of calling for quiet, I managed one decent take of sound. Desperate to go home, I handed the DAT tape to the director and scarpered.

Monday morning, I received a call from the producer - 'Where's the DAT tape?'

Me: 'I gave it to Herr Director.'

Producer: 'Oh...'

Months later, I saw the trailer online: Minus sound, with b-movie 'horror' music playing over the images. Needless to say, it lost its impact and did not sell the film at all.

"You want a Pepsi Free, Pal, you've gotta pay for it!"
So what can be salvaged from this experience?

Equipment: You do not need to spend a small fortune on equipment for your film. Do your research; understand exactly what you need and don't need. Do not get a gadget fetish.

Sound: Its crucial. Bad sound will ruin your movie. No sound will result in dodgy library music.

Crew: Treat your cast and crew with respect, especially if they are working for free.

Finally: If you can pay for equipment hire costs, you can pay cast/crew expenses at the very least.

Monday, 27 June 2011

"Y'know, these work..."

Lieutenant Ed Traxler: Nowt wrong with his specs.

Repeat after me: "Show. Don't tell."

Yes, we get it. Nobody likes to read in a script (or see an actor reeling out) exposition and plot reminders again and again. That's not to say you can't ever do that - used sparingly, or in a comedic way, it can work. (e.g. The Terminator: Lance Henriksen's cop reels off a load of info for OUR benefit, and his boss Traxler gives him a wry slap-upside the head. Genius.)

Its a good rule to try to avoid patronising your audience. But I often find its easier said than done.

Having spent the past six weeks script editing my completed works, I've found polishing dialogue and perfecting character motivation the most challenging part of writing a script. Its where the hard work really comes in, constantly asking yourself 'How can I make this flow better, or at least in a more challenging or original way?' Not that everything I write is dire, I hasten to add/protest too much: But its having that inner 'coach' voice that pushes and drives you to improve: The literary version of 'Gimme 50 more laps!'

And then I watch a tv show like 'Treme'. Now I know I've been evangelical about this show: Tough! I'm not kidding, they should be handing out the scripts to film students, or at least make them available to buy. Its that good. In a couple of the latter episodes, I witnessed a couple of scenes that were so simple but effective - and a good example of 'less is more'.

Davis & Annie: Will they, won't they?
Firstly, there's an episode that centres around a Mardi Gras parade. Local DJ and general hyperactive loudmouth Davis crosses paths with street violinist Annie. They have a nice day together, and get on great. Later in the day, there comes a moment where you think Davis and Annie might make a cute couple - at least that's the look on their faces. And then Davis pulls out a joint, sparks up and offers it to Annie.

Unbeknownst to Davis, but known to the audience, Annie is struggling with a drug-addicted boyfriend. And for the time being, it derails any possibility of a blossoming romance. And its all said and done with a look.

Big Chief: 'Nuff Said.
Next up: Albert/Chief leads his clan through the streets, only to come up against another 'rival' procession: Things look heated. The two clan chiefs face-off, but ultimately show each other respect and pass-by peacefully. Later on, Albert and his clan come up against a group of aggressive cops. After a brief shout-down, one of the cops informs his colleagues to back off: Show respect to tradition. A lovely mirroring of a previous scene - one for the spirit world, the other for the real world. Again, not much is said, but having been informed that the first face-off was about showing respect, then second face-off has a deeper relevance.

Now where can I get my hands on those 'Treme' scripts?

Monday, 20 June 2011

"I'll show you the life of the mind!"

Jack Lipnick: Not one of those guys who thinks poetic has got to be fruity.

"We're only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? 
Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? 
Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? 
Is that more than one thing? Okay!"

Following on from the second biggest question in the universe "Why should your feature-length screenplay be made for a cinematic release?", I thought I'd stare deeper into the abyss and ask 'What is drama?'

A visual depiction of desperate times.
I recently read a great blog post by Filmutopia about drama vs. conflict.Or rather, drama is NOT about conflict: Its about what's at stake. The cost. What our 'hero' stands to lose. Then comes the varying levels of jeopardy: What is physically and emotionally at stake; relationships, career, sanity etc. And THEN what happens if our 'hero' has to choose between these treasured pathways?

A few years ago, when I was having one of those desperate 'Where is it all going?' moments, I wrote to director, writer and producer Walter Hill for advice. And why not? Made perfect sense at the time. "I'm stuck. There's no way out. Let's ask the man who is the master of 'No Way Out-ness.'"

So I asked Walter for his opinion on what makes a good film. The reply was most definitely from the man responsible for such classics as 'Southern Comfort', '48HRS', 'The Long Riders', 'Trespass', 'Red Heat', and most special of all - 'The Warriors'. (Not forgetting that he also produced the 'Alien' movies.)
Walter Hill: Can you dig it!
"There's an old quote of Howard Hawks I always liked, 
when asked 'What is drama?', he answered,

'Will he live or will he die, that's drama.'

I humbly agree.

Keep writing, good luck in the jungle."

So there you have it. In a precise little nutshell. 
Don't get caught up on time-filling incidentals - ALWAYS concentrate on what's at stake.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Pop quiz, hotshot...

... You receive good feedback from the BBC regarding your commercial feature length screenplay 'Viktorialand', but the closing comment is: "Why should your script be made for a cinematic release?" What do you do?

Its a question that stumped me, if I'm honest. My initial response is 'Why should ANY feature length script be made for cinema?' Most films could work as a tv series or a one-off drama. Likewise, a lot of tv shows have cinematic quality (HBO shows in particular).

On Saturday I went to a screening of 'Swinging With The Finkels' at the Apollo Cinema in London (a 'Script to Screen' event, hosted by Chris Jones). Find out more here!

'Finkels' Director Jonathan Newman
After the screening, 'Finkels' director Jonathan Newman discussed his journey as a film maker. His honest account of his experience was great to hear, and its fair to say he's had an amazing couple of years. After the screening, I grabbed five minutes with Jonathan, and I put to him the question that the BBC asked me:

What makes a feature length script worthy of a cinematic release?

Why not tv? 

  • We have more of a 'television industry' in this country as opposed to a 'film industry'.
  • Do ideas have to be BIG for a cinematic release?
  • Is TV for telling, and cinema for showing?
  • Is it about how the script is shot?
  • Is it about big name actors in starring roles?
  • What about all those films we've seen where not much happens, but its a GREAT film? 

'The Walking Dead': Cinematic in scope...
The Kings Speech: As not seen premiering on BBC4.

I've come round to the idea of television being a good home for certain projects of mine. Even those hard-sell projects which tv wouldn't know what to do with - why not make them as a web-series? Why is cinema our ultimate goal? 

'Another Year': Oscar-nommed slice of reality.
Take Mike Leigh's "Another Year". Great film, loved it, and it was up for some Oscars too, if my memory serves me correctly. But ask me what its about. Well, not much. Sure, stuff happens in the story, but the brilliance of it was spending a couple of hours with characters that you could relate to, and it was an emotional, poignant,  enjoyable experience. But why was it made for cinema? It could have been a tv drama on BBC 4. Recently, Gareth Unwin (producer of 'The Kings Speech') revealed the original intention for his Oscar-gobbling project was precisely that: Television.

Its a difficult question with no clear, obvious answer. It made me step back and look at my script 'Viktorialand': Could it be a tv series? A one-off comedy/relationship drama?  In my mind, I picked the story apart; adapted it into various formats - but each time it lost something. And the only answer I had as to why it wouldn't work as good on television, web, etc. - Because it is meant to be a film. Some scripts are meant for the cinema - so its my word against yours!

Yup, it all boils down to force of personality. If you're passionate enough, then you go for it. People might disagree strongly with you. You might not get the budget you want, or enough time to develop it fully (If someone approaches you saying 'I have a few million to spend of a film - will you be ready to shoot in seven months? You say 'YES!'). Your project might go straight to DVD and bypass the cinema altogether. But it is still a feature film. And that's what being a Guerilla film maker is - listening to and weighing opinion, but also being assured of your own.

Bueller... Bueller... Bueller: He did it his way...


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Down In The Treme... We're All Goin' Crazy...

Being a huge fan of HBO's 'The Wire' (apart from series 5: They dropped the ball IMHO), I looked forward to settling into 'Treme'; a post-disaster New Orleans-based story about how real lives are affected by the floods and how they are left to pick up the pieces of their lives.

This is what Lester Freamon gets up to when he's not
building miniature furniture.
Once again, I'm left with the same thought that I had when 'The Wire' ended: Why can't we make television drama like HBO in the U.K.? Okay, HBO has the budget and all that, and I'm not about to start knocking Brit-TV Drama - we've had plenty of successes in our time - but with both instances, 'The Wire' and 'Treme' show a reality that rarely hits our screens. A humanity. Its gives time and space for the characters to unfold - not in a pretentious, drawn-out way - but it has a clear love for their people, even down to the one-liner bit-parts. And above all - it all feels necessary.

Cheeky womaniser Antoine Batiste

Bunk Moreland: No relation.

I recently watched a labyrinthine UK drama which was strung out over many episodes, when it could have been told in about, oooh, three episodes. The critics loved it - "nevermind the quality - feel the width", they chimed. Sure, the first few episodes held my attention. But then it 'gave time' to its characters - and they didn't have much to say for themselves. Suddenly, it was all looking one-note and repetitive; a self-spoof.

Like 'The Wire', 'Treme' has a lot of atmosphere. Its not about pace, storylines and what-not: But you actually care about the characters: The good and the not-so-good. 

So take time to soak it up - nevermind the width, feel the quality.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Back to life, back to reality...

...Back from planet film.

Chris Jones with 'The Kings Speech' producer & writer
 Gareth Unwin & David Seidler
After spending two days and one evening in the company of Chris Jones and hundreds of film makers, I've got the same feeling that I get when I've finished shooting a film. Some of you may know that feeling: Its been hard work, tiring, challenging, educational, energising, inspiring, motivating... and a great reminder of WHY we ride the rollercoaster.

That's me, under the big red arrow...
I won't go into detail too much about what Chris spoke about - If you want useful tips, just go on the seminar next time Chris runs it. If you're serious about making films, you really have got no excuses. You simply cannot afford not to go. Yes, the days were very long, but the ground covered was immense. And most importantly, it wasn't two days of someone blowing hot air up your backside - it was sound, career-changing advice and opinion.

That's me in the corner... Well, towards the right...

Most importantly for me, the reason for going was utterly affirmed:

Should I still keep trying?
Why do I want to be a film maker? 

In the past, I've had:
The joy of creating a film, from script through to the edited film itself
The pleasure of meeting and working with some very talented, lovely people
The chance to go to places that I'd never normally go
The buzz and excitement of being on-set
The Quentin Tarantino phone call (or OMG Part 1)
The Terry Gilliam phone call (or OMG Part 2)
The Fred The Weather Man (from 'This Morning') phone call (or 'Excuse me, I need to get back on my weather map now!')

I've also had:
The on-set mutiny
The six-police-cars-arriving-on-location-induced panic attack
The firing the lead actor a week before the shoot
The second on-set mutiny (quashed before it got any legs)
The script not being ready to shoot
The why-is-there-no-audio-adaptor, hire company?
The colossal confrontations
The personal disappointment
The disappointment of friends and others
The disappearing 'friends'
The rejection and unwarranted judgment
The immense self-doubt

But: I'm still here.

I've had some horrendous times making films. I made some wrong choices. I was also at the mercy of uncontrollable elements. I've also had some of the best times of my life making films.

Hearing the trials of Chris Jones's career was pretty much a cathartic experience. Having had my guts kicked out and jumped up and down on whilst making films, I feel restored after last weekend's seminar. Like the cowardly lion after a trip to see the Wiz, I've been put back together. I know WHY I want to do this (and its not fame, money, peer recognition, proving myself or any of that stuff Chris wrote on the white board). Its because I simply have to do it. I've got stories to tell, and they need to be communicated to an audience.

I'm an 'end of stage 2-looking to start stage 3' film maker: I've worked as an A.D., I've made my own short and feature length films, have made tons of mistakes and have learned a lot from them. I'm now looking to make that 'Stage 3' quality short film.

So next year marks 'The Year Of The Shorts'.

The plan is to make two high-quality short films, get back on and ride that pony, Sheriff!