Saturday, November 29, 2008

X Films:True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker

Here's a Christmas gift idea for yourself, or that filmmaker complicating your life. I have this book and just finished reading it to get my mind momentarily off the clown-car onParliament Hill driving around Ottawa. Alex Cox has made some of my most admired and favourite movies out there. Especially Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Walker and the little seen El Patrullero (Highway Patrolman). Not only does he walk you through the nuts and bolts of getting these ten fantastic oddities on to the screen (including financing), but he still possesses a lot of passion and inspiration. For example:

"Talking to students and younger people now, I get the impression that they think a film is 'given' to a filmmaker - by a studio, or a production company. This is not so. If you are a real filmmaker, a film is something you personally conceive, and then, in partnership with similarly minded colleagues, make yourself. ... It is entirely within your power."

Cox and myself have a similar love for Once upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, The Clash, Mexican food and a DIY attitude. Some of the stories are spicy, including getting punched in the face by an extra...who waited until the last day of photography to do it. The only dirt I wished he had touched upon, was getting fired from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He's also a huge activist when it comes to fighting lousy copyright laws.

"On Paul Robeson's tombstone are the words ' The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I made my choice. I had no alternative.' What this great actor said applies to writers, to journalists, and indeed to almost everybody. But not everyone is in the fortunate position of the artist, able to weigh the political implications of each possible job, and to accept or reject the work accordingly. The choices that we make, as artists, hackers, or filmmakers, are visible in our work. No one is forced to make a film. Slavery is profitable. Freedom is difficult. Money is plentiful for those who promote obedience; it's in short supply for those who disobey. And yet, all over the world, people refuse to be slaves, and give up careers, and even lives, because their sense of self-worth, or their communities survival obliges them to. Another world is possible."

His ideas for a new film or digital world will get your gears turning. You may not agree with all of it, but it does get the blood flowing. If you run across the book, pick it up. You won't be disappointed. If you want to know more about the man go to his website.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Burn It Down

Finished a last pass of screenplay called 'Final Girl' and sent off to my writing partner to clean up. Then off it goes to Corus...if there's any money left in the last draw-down. Contractually there is. For the next few months I'm done with it. I'm creatively tapped out. In other words...I got nothin'...for now. Do I think it's perfect? Nope. But it's a hell of a lot better than scripts falling across my desktop and cloggin the email that are going into production and frantically trying to 'fix it' as they prep. Anyway, other projects call my name, one of which has received some dough. I'll write about them later.

Meanwhile, Canadian Broadcasters are culling the deadwood and trying to build a new business model in an economic crisis. Or hold onto the old's hard to tell. While I'm sure some folks I know will be hurt by the moves, my empathy is there, but I have little sympathy. See my old post 'Blood Clots in the Revenue Stream' from October. All of us, consumers and content creators have been barking for changes, so here they come. Will they all turn out like you hoped? Probably not, but maybe...just can become leaner and meaner and start rewarding success instead of failure. But it took a crisis and a CRTCruling to burn down the barn and get the old horses running off. Jim Henshaw makes some good points on hisblog. 

So, are we driving down a disappearing lane with a dead end? Broadcasters will inevitably stink up the place with howls of 'Now we can't even afford Canadian content'. Maybe, but that's an old song that's been sung for years. They have barely provided Canadian content anyway. Maybe it's an excuse to pull a few licenses on channels that claim they are providing new content. Every time I turn on the friggin TV I have so many channels that have the same four shows showing over and over that my head swims with resentment. The three Canuckbroadcasters that double and triple dip the consumer and then reported billions in profit. They are the skunk under the house who just keeps coming back with the same smell.

I know what your thinking. Trevor, you should be concerned because now all of these broadcasters have no money to help put your scripts in front of the camera. Really? They never did in the first place. Speciality Cable companies, Americans and Europeans put dough in my work. Not the Big-3 Canadian broadcasters. And that just doesn't include me, it is friends, family and fellow workers in the industry. Yep. Times will be lean, but when aren't they.

The real keys are timing, good work, and the learned ability to know a hot wire when you see one. People who count on luck don't last long in this business of defusing bombs and Canadian broadcasters have been churning out bombs, depending on luck and free money. They connected the wrong wires this time. But, like all human beings and nature's predators, they followed the path of least resistance.

Maybe that makes me an anarchist who wants to watch it all burn so that something else takes it place. Maybe. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that I have a dark sense of humour. Which reminds me, it does my heart good when I see Heath Ledger already being pushed as a 'Supporting Actor' candidate in the up coming Oscar votes.

So, that's about it for my half-assed wisdom for tonight. Right now I am focused on going out in my back yard and shooting a metaphorical bear who weighs five hundred pounds and is in a feeding frenzy. He wants my time, my money and sympathy. I don't have any. Not tonight. Just a shotgun and a 'redneck' attitude. I don't want to kill the bear. Just sting it in the ass and make it move along and stop digging in the garbage. I'm a territorialman. I don't mind sharing with him, but the bear is rude and he makes a mess when he eats. I'm sure you can guess what the bear is.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stitches in the Bone Garden

Here we are. Cool fog raising goose flesh on your arms. The full moon shining up above. Gnarled branches scratching the night sky. A forest of marble monuments and tombstones looming before you. You recognize the scene, don't you? Sure you do. Any horror writer worth his salt recognizes Dr. Frankenstein's favourite bone garden. Just as you remember why the good doctor invariably makes the cemetery his first stop, it's the mad scientist's first rule - if you're gonna make a monster, your gonna need parts.

Creating a script isn't much different. Just as Frankenstein's Monster is a crazy quilt of dear-departed humanity, your script will be an amalgam of influences. Which is why you must...get read widely. Mad scientists open graves. Writers open books. Books? 'Why I have all the screenwriting books in the world!" you say.

Recently I have been catching up on my reading. I've learned a great deal from novelists in all kinds of genres. For me, crime writers are a big influence in developing elements of my work. I learn a great deal about pace and plot and have found my best teachers in writers such as Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, John D. Macdonald and lately Duane Swierczynski. Now please, don't get the impression that I'm telling you to imitate other writers, especially when it comes to style, but you could learn a thing or two from these folks. For instance, take Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Not all of that can be applied to screenplays, but it is inspiring. Leonard says his most important rule is one that sums up the ten: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Now, back to the monster you want to create, and you're still determined to make a go of this mad scientist business. You're stitching it together, working everyday. You're reading. You're writing. You're putting in the time. But you don't want to overdo it. What do I mean? Too much 'mood' and an extra dollop of flowery description and your story will read like a parody. It's the 'hey Ma, look at me write' syndrome and it's usually from over-thinking and creating prose. Too much of a good thing is indeed too much of a good thing.

But also remember that even Dr. Frankenstein had his failures. That nasty bit of business with Igor and the abnormal brain, for example. But the good doc wasn't a quitter. When things didn't work out the way he'd planned, Victor Frankenstein always got out his shovel and headed back to the cemetery. So don't give up. Put in the time. Write and READ something other than this blog and get the fuck off facebook for a while and stitch that monster together. Would it kill you to read a book?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Donkeys and Flares

" There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it," said theultimate master of terror, Alfred Hitchcock. I read a couple of my favourite blogs this morning, Boot in the Pants and Dead Things ON Sticks. Both writing about imminent disaster, canceling Christmas and the down-sizing of Canadian networks and images of buildings being demolished. Read 'em. They're good. Don't be lazy, just go to the sidebar.

Today a pretty young woman came knocking on my door and she had brought her kid with her. Who could this be? I opened the door and said " Hi." She smiled, said hello, then quickly asked "How do you define success?" "That's a pretty big question" was all I could say. Then I looked at what she was carrying in her hand, and...well...I'll get to the rest later, but above is a picture of what she gave me.

Millions of people around the world are watching headlines these days, most of them are getting pumped full of fear. Good news is out of the question in this brutal year of our Lord 2008. This, it would appear, to be the time of the Final Shit Rain, as Nostradamus predicted in 1444 A.D. I think the Aztecs, according to their calenders, have all of us croaking around 2012. Anybody who thinks these prophets and media-types are kidding should strut out, like some all-American girl with a head full of hope, and try and get a job. Yes sir, little sweetie, just walk right up here and get what's coming to you. By all media accounts, welcome to bombs and poverty. You are about to start paying for the sins of your gas-guzzling fathers and yummy mommies with credit cards.

The deal is going south and we're down to our last cannonball. Don't even get started on Christmas and the retail market. Nobody ever seems to have money on Christmas anyway? The only difference is that the rich are begging for bailouts and jabbering frantically into their cellphones and Blackberries about Santa Claus and suicide or joining a church with no rules. We the taxpayer are about to become Santa Claus for these nitwits. Who knows why? But politicians will have their reasons. They'll fashion some horrible Kafka-like economic story to convince us it's a good thing. But in the end, it won't matter any more than a full moon behind the clouds. These folks are like that drunken friend who keeps wanting to borrow money...just for that they can get better. They say that they're in a 'transition period' and just need a few bucks to get them through. Then they keep coming back every few years pleading the same case.

Anyway, it appears (according to the media, banks and my mystery visitor) I should invest in a mule, saddle it with pots, pans and other provisions and wait for the coming collapse. It'll be like going to the bridge inApocalypse Now...magnum phosphorus flares in the air, weeping, no one is in charge and all you can do is pray. Speaking of praying, back to my visitor this morning.

If you haven't figured out by now, she was a Jehovah's Witness. She asked if I define success by fame, money or power? I didn't have an answer. But my guess is this: get on with foot in front of the step at a time.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Professionals and Amateurs

When I say professional, I don't mean doctors and lawyers, those of 'the professions'. I mean the Professional as an ideal. The professional in contrast to the amateur. Consider the differences. Here is what Pressfields 'The War of Art' states:

The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it's his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning 'to love.' The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his 'real' vocation.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. All of us are pros in one area: our jobs. We get a paycheck. We work for money. We are professionals. Here are the principles:
- we show up everyday
- we show up no matter what
- we stay on the job all day
- we are committed over the long haul
- the stakes for us are high and real
- we accept renumeration for our labour
- we master the technique of our job
- we receive praise and blame from the real world

Now consider the amateur and how he pursues his calling:
- he doesn't show up everyday
- he doesn't show up no matter what
- he doesn't stay on the job all day
- he is not in it for the long haul
- the stakes are illusions and fake
- he does not get money
- has not mastered technique because no work is committed to
- he does expose his work to the real world, only support groups, friends or family

Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it's for failure. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. "I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp."

That's a professional. Maugham was saying a deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting the work on time, he set in motion a sequence of events that produced a result. He knew if he built it and did the work, the Muse would come.

Unfortunately, we are in the time of the amateur in my profession. Below is a satirical report from The Onion. Funny as it is, this satire works because it is based on a truth.

YouTube Contest Challenges Users To Make A 'Good' Video

Funny, but satire has a whole load of truth.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Breakdown

When I'm hired to do breakdowns or schedules for producers based on a screenplay they have in development, I'm always blown away. Why? After reading the screenplay several times and 'tagging it', there are SO MANY SCENES ABOUT NOTHING. Followed closely by crap that is unfilmable.

These 'breakdowns' are also referred to as 'boarding', a process of organizing the film into a literal or theoretical shoot. This helps in budgeting, of course, and logistics...really, it's all about how much money are we spending? Some of you may know this, but a board is made up showing the scene numbers, the characters, physical elements (cars, stunts, effects etc). The scene is identified by both number and by logline, a description of the scene just sufficient for its ID eg., Johnny looks at the map. Will Dixon falls down the stairs. I was preparing one this weekend and have done so many I have lost count. I looked at the board when it was finished, reading the loglines, and saw that three of the scenes had the 'same logline'. Actually, A LOT of the scenes had similar loglines. I re-read and realized that those scenes are indeed about the same thing.

What's my advice? If you can't figure out what the scene is about CUT IT. If it is necessary, than only once.

They say you get to make a movie three times. When you write it, when you shoot it, and when you cut it. I believe one really doesn't start to learn how to write a script until on has been on a set. On the set you learn the difference between what is filmable and what are merely pretty words. Some screenplays I breakdown as a First AD read like a personals column. The descriptions of characters are: beautiful, smart, funny, likes long walks in the park, honest, sexy. Others are about what can be seen out the window in a particular office. Better yet,'She's the kind of girl who....', which you can write all day but neither helps an actor or director or me in helping to implement it. All of these scripts read like begging letters that are trying to please. What's wrong with trying to please? Nothing. But all that gobblygook has worked not to please the audience but some co-dependent or mysterious 'other' that has little baring on the story.

Another says it better than I....

A script is a succession of scenes, each scene must end so that the protagonist is thwarted in his/her goal - so that he/she is forced to go to the next scene to get what they want. That's it . That's all you really need. The scene need not be ' interesting', 'meaningful' 'revelatory of character', and so on, all of these are synonyms for 'it stinks on ice'. - David Mamet

Another peice of advice: Use some of your development money to do a preliminary breakdown and have your screenplay 'boarded'. It'll be an eye-opener in terms of what is filmable and give you a fighting chance to see it going beyond gathering dust on your book shelf.