Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: How soon should inner conflict be introduced?

So as I was going through my inbox looking for interesting questions that I've neglected over the last few months, I came across this email.  For whatever reason, I've got a bit of a mental block on this question because any time I've tried to answer it, my brain just goes blank.  I really hate that I've left this guy on the hook for a while, so I've decided that I'm just going to crowdsource the answer.

This is from Glenn:

I have a question for you regarding the introduction of the protagonist's inner conflict. It has been brought to my attention that my current comedy script needs to have it flushed out better and introduced sooner in the story.

Is there a standard how early inner conflict should be revealed in a story such as the first act? The protagonist in my current script wrestles with choosing what is more important in his life; material wealth and status in his town verses placing a greater importance on the well-being of his family members. I'm trying to avoid wedging inner conflict into this story before the reader/audience would understand why this conflict is an issue in his world.

I believe I've watched good movies that didn't bring out inner conflict until the second half of a story. Conversely, some movies feel they have to smack you over the head several times to make sure everyone knows what it is.

Any information you can share with me will be greatly appreciated.

So what say you?  My gut reaction is that it's helpful to reveal inner conflict early on (just as one example, Marty's lack of self-confidence, as revealed within the first fifteen minutes of Back to the Future), but it's not essential. 

I think in most cases you're going to see that inner conflict established well before the turning point into Act Two, but can anyone come up with exceptions along the lines of what Glenn is asking for?

Monday, July 30, 2012

The music question that never stops being asked

Veronica asks:

I just read your blog on putting specific music in the script. There was one recent comment from someone who wasn't yet answered and I have the same question, pretty much. It was, "I am writing a script that is essentially centred around its music. The music, while mostly incidental bar a few exceptions, sets the theme of the film."

Think of 'Love Actually' and how there was a minute amount of specially-written music for it but the rest being actual songs. That's the way this one's written. I know Richard Curtis has earned the right to do that in his scripts but this script wouldn't have the same impact without the actual pieces of music specified as they set the mood of the scene rather than being truly incidental. How would one get this around a producer?

This is one of those tricky questions and I'm sure we'll get some disagreement here.  I'll reiterate the advice I usually give - don't fall in love with your musical choices.  Not only do those choices actually have to be cleared, but you might end up dealing with a director or a producer or a musical supervisor who sees it quite differently.

From your perspective, you're trying to tell the story in the best way possible.  If the music enhances that, great.  If the music is propping up a weak story, that's a problem.  For as much as the music in Love, Actually sets the mood, how many of those scenes really need that specific song?

Is it absolutely necessary for Hugh Grant to get down to the Pointer Sisters?  Couldn't it just as easily have been Pat Benetar?

"All You Need is Love" is a great choice for the wedding number, but is that the only song that could have been touching there?  Could "Rainbow Connection" have worked in a pinch?

And you'll find no bigger fan of "Christmas is All Around" than I, but I think Billy Mack is such a fantastic character that you could have put any pop Christmas song there and have it work.

So that's why I advise you not to lock the music down too specifically in your script - and I REALLY don't advise putting multiple songs in there.  If there's one song that you really, absolutely want to name, fine, go for it.  (Though I'd suggest covering your ass by saying "Billy Mack sings 'Christmas is All Around,' or a song like it).

While we could all list a few hundred of our favorite movie moments involving licensed music, I'd venture to say that the music itself is the make-or-break element in that moment.  It's the garnish.  The moment you are relying entirely on the sentiment attached to an existing song to prop up your scene with cheap sentimentality, you take one step closer to being a hack.

So look at your script really hard.  I'm talking really hard.  And ask yourself straight up.  Do I really need this song?

Do you?

WHY do you need this song?  What is it doing for you that your scene isn't doing on its own?  Is the song really necessary - or is it a cheat?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Walk before you run

Hina asks:

"Say you come up with a highly stylized world that has genuine merchandising capacity, is highly commercial and possesses multiplatform potential, but feature script-wise you're a total newbie, would you wait until you've completed your other projects and hopefully get those commissioned so you have a sufficient standing in the industry to then launch the multiplatform project you have written? Or would you just pitch it, guns-a-blazing?"

My advice, I'd go with the former. For more than one reason.

Look at the people writing and directing the big blockbusters.  Odds are they cut their teeth on smaller-scale projects before working their way up to tentpoles.

- Before he was huge in movies and TV, J.J. Abrams first script sales were the smaller movies Taking Care of Business, Regarding Henry and Dying Young.

- Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci spent years in TV making a name for themselves before they started selling big movies.

- The Dark Knight Rises' co-writer Jonathan Nolan had a huge boost by having a brother in the business, and his first work was the short story that became Memento.

- The other TDRK co-writer, David S. Goyer, got his first writing credit on a 1990 Van Damme movie, Death Warrant.

Prometheus's Damon Lindelof's early credits include MTV's Undressed and CBS's Nash Bridges.

And those are just the works that sold!  They still had to develop their craft and break into the business before that.  What do you think the odds are that the first scripts they wrote are the ones that opened the doors for them?

You have to walk before you can run.  George Lucas didn't jump right to doing Star Wars.  He did many short films, the low-budget THX-1138, and American Graffiti first.  Also, if you've ever seen the early drafts of Star Wars, you'd know that it bore little resemblance to anything that ended up on screen and that George spent years rewriting it and refining his ideas before it was in any state to be shot.

If you have an idea that's that unique and that marketable, experience can only make it better.  Develop your craft on more managable ideas first.  Not only will it be easier for you to break in on something that isn't in the tentpole catagory, but you'll grow as a writer so that when you do finally work on that golden idea, it'll be better as a result of what you've learned.

Jumping straight to writing blockbusters is like saying, "I like the piano.  I want to have my first recital in Carnegie Hall."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 8 - Coda

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the eighth chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video deals with writing the coda of your story, the final grace notes after the main problem has been resolved.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

What are you finding useful about these videos?  What else would you like to see from future series?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday Talkback - What should (or shouldn't) we see in a Batman reboot?

At this point, the only thing more inevitable than death and taxes is the likelihood of seeing a Batman reboot sometime in the next decade.  Christopher Nolan may have brought his saga to an end, but the Caped Crusader is simply too valuable a property for Warner Bros to leave on the shelf for long.  Some kind of reboot is going to happen, and unlike virtually ever other rebooted series, the next film is going to be coming on the heels of a hit rather than an abject failure.

This presents a bit of a conundrum for the filmmaker eventually drafted for that task.  How does one satisfy an audience that's still hungry for what Nolan brought to the series while also putting their own stamp on it?  After the failure of the camp humor and tone in Batman & Robin, it was easy for WB to get behind a filmmaker who wanted to do something radically different.  This time, the problem will be, how does one mess with success?

As a long time Batman fan, I find myself more interested in someone taking a different approach rather than trying to cast their own movie in a Nolan-type universe.  As much as I liked that Bryan Singer's Superman Returns tried to tie itself to the Donner Superman, I don't want to see Nolan's successor take the same tactic.  I don't want camp, either.  Or the weirdness that defined Burton's turn at the helm.

Batman: The Animated Series is probably the best Bat-adaptation as far as capturing the spirit and depth of the comic without getting too gritty and realistic.  There's a heightened reality there without giving in to the excesses of Burton and Schumacher.  Emulating that might be the best way to satify Nolan fans without feeling like a retread of his saga.

What I don't want to see in a reboot is another long retelling of the origin.  Batman Begins worked because Bruce Wayne's origin had never been told in such depth before.  But why cover that ground again?  I'd start the film with Batman already active in Gotham, maybe even active for a year or two.  Maybe he's not chummy with the police, maybe some people even doubt he exists, but he's firmly established.

Second, I wouldn't use the Joker straight off the bat.  It would be hard to surpass Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.  I'd probably use the Riddler, going off of comic writer Geoff Johns's notion that the Riddler is such an intellectual challenge that he's the logical villain to showcase Batman as a detective.  (Obviously, I'd go for a more serious take than Jim Carrey or Frank Gorshin.)

Third - and this one is going to be controversial for some - I'd make one of main plots about the introduction of Tim Drake.  For those not in the know, Tim was the third Robin in the comics continuity and was one of the few people to figure out that Bruce Wayne was Batman.  He earned is place as Batman's partner (not sidekick) and, frankly, is one of my favorite characters in comics.  I don't know if I'd make him Robin in the first film, but I'd like to see him as a POV character - show Gotham and Batman through his eyes to some extant.

So how about you?  The odds of any of us being drafted for the job are pretty low, so we probably don't have anything to fear by tossing out our wishlists.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The few blemishes in The Dark Knight Rises

Like most of you, I saw The Dark Knight Rises this weekend.  Fair warning, this blog post will contain a few spoilers, so if you don't want them blown for you, back out now.  Now I'm going to babble for a bit before getting to the point so you won't accidentally see any spoilers immediately below.

As a Batman fan, I came away very satisfied.  I'm not sure I can give enough praise to Christopher Nolan and the entire creative team (including writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) for what they accomplished here.  This is the first time that any superhero film series managed to get three solid entries, let alone with the same filmmaker at the helm.  The Christopher Reeve Superman films have a 50-50 batting average, with most fans agreeing that the previous Batman series was about equally successful.  The X-Men films peaked with X2, though First Class was rather good.  Iron Man stumbled with its second entry, so even if Iron Man III is as good as the first, it still won't equal what Nolan achieved here.

The closes that any superhero series has come to this was when Sam Raimi directed three Spider-Man movies - but the consensus is that the third movie is best forgotten.

This might be the first time that a particular comic book adaptation was allowed to end on its own terms, rather than being brought to an end because of either shortcomings at the box office or an inability to get a project together in time to satisfy the deadline on an option on the rights. I really liked how Nolan's films all form one large story and aren't just a largely episodic series (like James Bond, for instance.) 

One of TDKR's strengths is how it pulls together threads from the previous films and weaves them into something that really feels like a conclusion.  Nolan truly tells a complete story here, and in a weird way that actually makes it easier to view this as a finished interpretation and welcome the inevitable rebooting of the Batman series.  Considering the wide range of interpretation that the Batman mythos have gone through over 70+ years, it probably would be smart for the next creative team to go in an entirely different direction.

So when I get into the issues that bugged me, it's important to remember that these are very small in the overal picture, so without any further ado...

What exactly did the Dent Act do?  As I understand it, the Dent Act is credited with allowing Gotham to clean up the streets, presumably by somehow giving the authorities the ability to lock up members of organized crime indefinitely.  The script is pretty vague on what the Dent Act is, but we do understand that it was ratified legally, presumably by the voters.  Martyring Dent was a big motivator, which is why no one is eager for the truth to come out that Dent went nuts and killed several people in the earlier film.

There's a lot with this that doesn't make sense.  First, the public was told that Batman was responsible for killing Harvey Dent - so I don't quite know how that translates to the voters drawing a straight line from Harvey's murder to tougher measures against organized crime.  Whatever those vague measures may be.

Second, from some dialogue at the beginning of the picture, we understand that the Dent Act is hugely popular.  People are thrilled that it's kept the streets safe.  If the truth about Harvey Dent were to come out now, it's not like the Dent Act immediately disappears.  Sure, people might be pissed at the deception, but since the law's on the books and has had a positive effect, I don't think Gotham City voters would decide, "Well, guess that's the end of that. Better dump this law just to remain morally consistent."

I could probably dig into this further, but the point has probably been made.  Bottom line: The Dent Act feels like a lot of hand-waving and half-explanations.

How does John Blake figure out Bruce is Batman?  So Blake recounts how he met Bruce Wayne years ago when Wayne made a visit to his orphanage.  He intuited that Bruce was hiding a big secret.  Blake says he'd learned to put on a false face to hid his own pain and he recognized that same mask on Bruce.  And THAT is how he knew Bruce was Batman.

Say what?

I don't see how Blake makes that leap.  At best, he should be able to figure out that Bruce hides a lot of pain at being an orphan, but he already knew Bruce was an orphan.  How does spotting someone else putting on a lot of bravado lead to "Ah-HA! This guy likes to put on body armor and beat criminals to a pulp!"

Blake figures out the truth only because the movie NEEDS him to know the truth, logic be damned.

Bane's origin misdirection - I'll be brief because this is one detail that I need to watch closely on a second viewing.  For a time, we're led to believe that Bane's movie origin correlates to his comic book one - that he was born in prison and never saw the sun until he escaped.  Late in the film, we learn that's not true.  There was a child born and raised in prison, but that's actually a different character.  Bane was merely the "protector" for that child.

So if Bane was just another prisoner, why does he claim "I was born in darkness."  Why does he seem to imply he didn't see light until he was an adult?  Yes, it's possible he's speaking metaphorically, but that feels like it bit too much of a writing cheat.

There are a couple other little moments, but to me, those were the most glaring.  As I said, I enjoyed the film, but it annoys me when there are these pieces that don't fit.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Of "Recommends"

Paul writes in with two questions:

1)  As a reader, if you want to "recommend" a script but have doubts how it will be received by your boss(es), do you play safe and only "consider" it?

I've covered this before but it bears repeating, "Recommends" are incredibly rare.  If I give a Recommend to a script, it means I'm telling everyone in the company to drop everything immediately and read this right away.  I'm saying "This isn't just better than anything else that has come through these doors, it's completely flawless and objectively brilliant."

As you might guess, few scripts meet that criteria.  "Recommend" means that you're over the moon for this script.  "Consider" is when you pick up a girl at the bar who's pretty cute, maybe even really cute.  "Recommend" is when you pick up Brooklyn Decker.

Do you know how hard it is to walk into a bar and find a Brooklyn Decker?  That's how hard it is to find a Recommend.  I don't think I've EVER given a Recommend, and that's not just because I'm scared of the reaction from my bosses, it's because I've never found a script I'm in that love with.

2)  And do you only look at scripts your boss would be interested in?  What do you do with scripts that you would "recommend" but know your boss(es) aren't looking for said material?

Hypothetically, if I came across a script that was boiling over with brilliance, but it was completely wrong for the bosses I was reading for, I'd still give it a Consider.  I might - MIGHT - give a "Recommend" on the writer, because if a script is that good, clearly the writer is doing something right.  Maybe this particular concept or story is wrong for the company, but it'd be worth flagging this writer in case he had something that would work for us.

I'd find it really hard to PASS on a script that was extremely well-written.  A competent script that was a mismatch? Yeah, I could easily pass on that.  "Competence" isn't good enough.  Think of it like American Idol.  Usually all or most of the top 12 are at least competant vocalists and still better than the average Joe - but how many of them are superb?  How many of them would you buy an album from?  How many of them would stand out on the radio?

If you want to get a Recommend, you can't just be the 9th place vocalist in a nationwide talent search.  You've gotta be Kelly Clarkson or Adam Lambert.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 7 - Climax

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the seventh chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video deals with writing the climax of the third act.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

What are you finding useful about these videos?  What else would you like to see from future series?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: Biggest sequel letdowns

Anticipation is at its peak for The Dark Knight Rises, opening later this week.  In fact, I'd say that expectations are so high that there's no way the movie could possibly live up to them.  The first wave of positive reviews are encouraging, but I hope that none of that comes from a place of the reviewers WANTING this film to be so good that they're bending over backwards to be fair to it.

But this got me thinking about major let-downs in the past.  I think the biggest letdown in recent memory was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  I went in willing to accept that it wouldn't be as good as Raiders or Last Crusade, but I hoped they'd at least reach the quality of Temple of Doom.

Unfortunately, the film proved you can't go home again.  From moment one, Ford's performance felt off, too gruff, too "get off my lawn."  The warehouse chase was decent, and the Harvard action sequence was good enough that I almost convinced myself that this could be a decent movie.  Yes, there was the "nuking the fridge" scene, but I didn't find that much more abusive of real-world logic than the idea that would could bail out of a plane in a life rafts and survive a several thousand foot fall.

Then came the fact that Indy and his annoying-sidekick-who-is-clearly-his-son found the skull barely a half-hour into the film.  That worried me.  Marion's return felt clumsy, and her confirming Mutt's parentage also felt like a fumble in the execution.  But on a first viewing, my denial was still strong enough.

Then came the monkey army.  And that was when I knew there was no saving this film.  Little did I realize the film still had further to fall.

So what are your biggest letdowns?

Monday, July 16, 2012

"How do I write for someone so unlike me?"

I was at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, and frankly, I'm still a little fried from the experience as I type this.  Fortunately, my attendance at Jane Espenson's panel on Sunday allows me to not have to think too hard to come up with a writing tip today.

Jane has been writing for TV for 20 years, with her best-known stints including writing for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica and currently, Once Upon a Time.  She's long been on a list of my favorite writers and her old blog is chock-full of useful writing advice.  On a personal note, I wrote her a fan letter when I first moved to Los Angeles, asking for advice about breaking into TV writing.  A few weeks later I was pleasently surprised when she wrote me a personal letter back.  A small gesture, perhaps, but the fact she cared to do so told me a lot about her character.

My point is, Jane knows her shit.  She's also recently branched out into webseries writing, and co-created the series Husbands with Brad Bell.  Husbands was the focus of much of Sunday's panel.  For those not in the know, it's about a newly-married male gay couple.  Director Jeff Greenstein (who worked on Will & Grace and Desperate Housewives) noted that part of the show's appeal was that it took a common experience (the struggles that a new couple faces in a relationship) and found a new way to package it so it wasn't "just another romantic comedy." (In this case, using a gay couple instead of a straight one.)

During the Q&A portion of the program, one young woman asked what Jane later described as one of the most interesting questions she'd ever gotten.  Quite simply, this woman asked "As a young straight woman, how can I become better at writing characters not like me," meaning, blacks, gays, Asians, and so on.

Espenson and Greensteen both essentially arrived at the same conclusion. Greenstein said that when he wrote for Will & Grace, as a straight man, he found the best approach to writing the characters was to look for what was the same about him and those characters rather than becoming stymied by what was different. 

Jumping off from that, Jane noted that though writers are often told to "write what they know" a good way to overcome limited experience is simply to meet all kinds of people, suggesting writers get out there and live life.  For her, she overcame this by being in a diversity writing program, which meant that many of the people she was learning alongside were "unlike" her.

So if you're looking to write someone different than you, both tips are worth remembering.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Future Filmmaker Friday: Violet

This week I'm showcasing another entry from Campus MovieFest, a drama called "Violet."  It was created by Then There Was Lumière Productions at New York University.

Drama is incredibly hard to do as a short film, and believe me, I've seen many a filmmaker try and fail.  It's hard to deal with weighty themes in a short film, and even hard to deal with certain subjects without dipping into overwrought melodrama.  Because of this, I'm very impressed with filmmaker Eliza McNitt and her lead actress Amanda Yarosh is excellent as well.

And remember, they only had a WEEK to shoot and edit this!  This was a nominee for Best Picture and deservedly won Best Drama and Best Cinematography at Campus Movie Fest Hollywood last month.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

12-Step Screenwriting: Week 6 - Third Act Turning Point

It's time for another episode of the Bitter Script Reader YouTube series!

This is the sixth chapter of a 12-part series designed to guide and motivate a writer to complete a screenplay within three months.  Recognizing that I had an opportunity to reach a new audience via YouTube, I decided to start with the basics.

This week's video deals with writing the climax of the second point, also know as the "All is Lost" moment.

As you can see, this is back-to-basics information, but hopefully some of you will take up the challenge of completing a screenplay alongside the weekly lessons in this series.  I've done my best to minimize the jargon here.  So while at some point we'll be talking things like Act Breaks and Climaxes, but I won't ask you to commit things like "Fun & Games" to memory.

As always, it really helps me out to see some engagement with these videos, so please click through to the YouTube page, subscribe and leave a few comments there.  Feel free to embed these on your blogs, and if you find the tips useful, tweet about them or put the videos on your Facebook page.

Help me out here guys.  What are you finding useful about these videos?  What else would you like to see from future series?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday Talkback: What movie do you quote the most?

A great script often has great dialogue - and let me tell you, in my line of work, that means that you see few great scripts.  I think we've all got our favorite movie quotes, perhaps some that we use on a regular basis.  Sometimes it's easy to forget that every one of those lines began as keys punched into a word processor.  How surreal must it be for the writers of said lines to be wandering about the world, only to hear others appropriating their lines in reverence.

So what movie do you find yourself quoting the most?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Loglines - concept or story?

Jill asks:

I've been following your web series on screenwriting and went back through my notes on what you said regarding idea vs. concept vs. story -- very helpful by the way. I'm curious as to your thoughts on what should be written in one's logline: the concept or the story? 

 I've read so much conflicting advice regarding what to put in your logline (and seen both -- a slick, mean, six-word concept and two long sentences that describe the story/essence of the screenplay).

Ask ten different people this question and you're likely to get nearly ten different responses.  I covered this before here, where I gave this advice:

I'd say to shoot for one sentence [in length], but don't sweat it if you need two sentences to cover everything. It's also not a bad idea to include some plot details - or at least the main hook of the story and how it relates to the main character. A good trick is the TV Guide technique - write the logline the way you imagine that TV Guide would summarize the story. 

Take Die Hard for example: "A New York cop tries to save his estranged wife from terrorists who have taken an L.A. office building hostage on Christmas Eve." Bam! One sentence and I know the protagonist, the antagonist, the hooks and the stakes.

So in that case, I guess I'm advocating the concept be the logline.  But that's a helluva lot easier to do when you're dealing with a high concept idea.  What about something more character-driven?

This is the IMDB logline for Like Crazy: "A British college student falls for an American student, only to be separated from him when she's banned from the U.S. after overstaying her visa."

Concept or story?  I say "concept."  That description tells me what the film is about, but doesn't get into any of the ins and outs of the various plot turns along the way.  And you know what, that brief description still suggests enough that I can get a sense of if this is the sort of script that fits my particular needs, at least with regard to genre and scope.

But if your approach differs, please sound off in comments.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Future Filmmaker Friday - "Caution Wet Floor"

If you told me this week's Future Filmmaker Friday selection was the work of a professional director, I'd believe you.  "Caution Wet Floor" is a clever silent comedy that could easily be the centerpiece of a director's reel being used to push a commercial director for his first feature.   It's the work of from the team Two Coins at the University of Arizona.  It was a Campus Finalist in its own finale and was a nominee for Best Picture and Best Comedy at the Campus MovieFest Hollywood finale.  I love the pacing and editing here, and the shot composition is really well-done.

For those not in the know, Campus MovieFest is a wonderful program that goes to college campuses throughout the year and provides students with Apple laptops and Panasonic HD cameras to make short film within one week.  Each school then has their own finale to select the best of the best, which then move on to the Grand Finale in Hollywood.

That's right - one week to make a film that can be no more than five minutes.  That's not exactly an easy task.

If you like the work, leave comments here or on their YouTube page.  Filmmakers thrive on feedback and I know it would mean a lot for the filmmakers I feature if you lent some support.

Watch the film and scroll down for an interview with Team Captain Shon Gale and Director Ethan Moore.

So tell us a little about yourselves. How did you get interested in film? Where are you in your school careers?

EM: I was raised by a family that loved film, especially the comedies of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks. I think those comedic filmmakers had a huge impact on the style of my own humor.

As a kid, I went to a filmmaking summer day camp called the Olympic Film Institute. At that time, we didn’t have access to any quality digital video cameras, so we shot all of our work on Super 8’s, got a digital transfer, and edited on an early version of iMovie. From that point on and throughout middle and high school, I used every school project and summer break to write and direct shorts, because why not? It was fun and way more interesting than writing a paper. That disposition led me to make filmmaking my study and career, and I honestly don’t think I would be happy studying or working in any other field.

SG: I spent a lot of my time in elementary and middle school making ridiculously terrible shorts and remakes with friends. I had boxes and boxes of costumes and we would essentially play dress up and make up stories as we went along. I edited on Windows Movie Maker, Pinnacle Studio, iMovie, and eventually Final Cut. In high school I made a lot of videos for school events and kept the ball rolling, tackling larger and more complex projects. It made we want to pursue filmmaking as a career and lifestyle, and I kept the ball rolling when I chose to major in media arts.

Right now, Ethan and I are both about to begin our senior year at the University of Arizona. We are earning our BFA’s in Film and Video Production in the selective production program at our school. Our capstone course has us creating our short thesis films over the entire school year, and we are developing those scripts as we speak.

Had you participated in Campus MovieFest before?

EM: Shon and I co-wrote and co-directed a short for CMF during our Freshman year, called “In Production” about a hopeless director attempting to make a film. We were awarded Best Comedy at the school level and won a copy of the newest Final Cut Studio.

SG: And we basically became best friends. Playing music, planning our next films, hanging out in the dorms.

EM: I was too busy with school to compete during my sophomore year, but Shon acted in our friend’s film “Mike and Megan” that won Best Picture at the school level. We shot Caution during the fall of our junior year.

SG: CMF has gotten a lot bigger on our campus since we participated as freshman. The production quality of everyone’s work keeps improving.

How did you develop the idea for CAUTION WET FLOOR?  How did the limitations of one-week to shoot and edit it play into how you developed your idea? 

EM: The first spark of the basic concept for "Caution Wet Floor" came when I was interning for a major agency last summer. In those bathrooms, you see a lot of suits walk in and out. I don’t remember what train of thought led me to the idea of a botched hit, but once I knew the hitman would kill his target and would subsequently die by his own device, the rest of the story just started building in my mind. The bag and asphyxiation made the most sense for the bathroom setting, and the motivation for the puddle, the gassiness, the hook, and the pant button followed. My rule was that the chain of events had to remain plausible and properly motivated. The situation could be absolutely ridiculous, as long as every accident could feasibly occur in that environment. In terms of the the film having no dialogue, the story had no need for it. There was no motivation for lines of dialogue, so I didn’t write any. You usually don’t hear much chatter in the men’s bathroom. It’s a sacred, mostly silent place. The sounds you hear in the film are the sounds you hear in any bathroom. Sinks, farts, urination, and flushing. It’s not meant to be gross-out disgusting, but rather realistic.

SG: This was truly a guerilla shoot. We shot in the public bathroom of the media arts building. Ethan, Brad Wong, our DP, and myself were in the middle of the most demandingly scheduled semester of our BFA program, and Brad was actually shooting his own CMF film as well (It went on to win Best Drama at the school level). Our hitman could give us Thursday and Friday night to shoot and had to come directly from the preview of the show he was in for the BFA theatre program. We were all completely overstressed.

How much time did you spend shooting the film?

EM: So we shot from about 6pm till 3am I believe on Thursday and then shot from 6pm till 5am on Friday. We had a $0 budget, a Canon T3i, a Tascam and boom mic, only the natural bathroom lighting except for one Opteka LED, and one PA at a time. We all covered the rest of the crew positions. Luckily, the bathroom was our only location. This allowed a 1 week shoot to become a 2 day shoot. Even if we wanted to, our school schedules wouldn’t have allowed any more time. But most importantly, there was such minimal production design needed. We really wanted a sterile quality in our design and color scheme. We didn’t develop the idea for the film around the time constraint, rather, the concept just happened to work perfectly for the time we had. Regardless, this film would not have happened if it weren’t for our amazing cast and crew. They worked their asses off in many physically uncomfortable positions and conditions. We couldn’t have paid them enough for their commitment to this project.

 SG: After the shoot, we got to editing immediately, taking an over 24 hour marathon session to log and sync the video and sound, cut the film together, compose the soundtrack in soundtrack pro, foley what we needed, create a sound design (yeah that didn’t happen), and color correct (that mostly didn’t happen). We worked non-stop up until the deadline, got it submitted on time, and got back to work on our school projects. We both agree, It was honestly the most stressful and equally gratifying shoot we’d ever worked on.

Was there anything you wanted to do, but couldn't, due to time restrictions?

EM: There was a lot more editing to do on the film, but we just didn’t have time and we know it could be a lot tighter.

SG: If we “coulda”, we “woulda”, but we've learned that you have these types of regrets after every shoot.

What - in your opinion - makes for a good short film?

EM: To me, a good short film needs to be truly inspired from the get go. Everyone always preaches “Write what you know,” but that’s because it’s true! You are the leading expert on your own life experience and perspective. Granted, there are many variables that combine to create a great short, but if it’s not inspired from the beginning, then it’s not going to work.

SG: The process of making this film has redirected my focus to pacing, and how incredibly important it is to keep your audience engaged—to allow them to get lost in your world. Its difficult to get a lot of anything across in a short film, so I think a good one finds a way to connect with its audience quickly and holds their attention.

What have you taken from the CMF experience? What were your impressions of CMFHollywood?

EM: The CMF experience really illustrates what we, as student filmmakers, are capable of under pressure, and I mean, the structure is really simple, “You have 1 week to give us 5 min. of your best. Here’s everything you need. Go”. You dig deep under that kind of pressure and can make some truly amazing work. This is what I feel, is the foundation of CMF’s success in showcasing student filmmaking talent. It’s not only that a lot of these films are really good, but that they were also made within a week or less! That displays a hell of a lot of passion and diligence. CMF truly gives us the ability to exceed the expectations of our work. As a student, you push yourself to a level that you just don’t get on a long term shoot. You learn new things about your abilities and accomplishments, and overall, you learn to have a lot of faith in yourself.

SG: CMF Hollywood was an amazing experience. We had taken Caution to Cannes with 29 other films from CMF, and had a great time there, but I honestly preferred the experience of CMF Hollywood. Every panel was valuable, insightful, and inspiring. Beyond the industry education provided to us, the whole event was focused around all of us as student filmmakers. Every aspect celebrated our filmmaking efforts and I think I can safely say that everyone felt very honored to experience this event. Even though we didn’t win Best Comedy or Best Picture, we were incredibly honored to be nominated and to be in the midst of so much talent. We can’t thank CMF enough for the amazing opportunities they have provided.

EM: In the words of the late-great Patrick Swayze, “Ditto”.

You can find Shon Gale's Vimeo page here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Sorry, non-Americans, but as this Wednesday is the 4th of July, our Independence Day, pretty much everyone is out celebrating our great revolution against the Nazis that led to the freeing of the slaves.*

As such, I know that traffic to the site is going to be down most of this extremely long weekend, so I decided to postpone putting up the next video in the "12-Step Screenwriting" series.  Rest assured, your favorite puppet will be back next week, so look at this as a chance to catch up on all the writing you didn't do.

So I don't leave you high and dry, here's one of my favorite Simpsons clips, which just so happens to be related to the holiday.  Wherever you are, I hope you're having a good day.**

*Note: I went to public school and learned my history from a textbook approved by the Texas State Board of Education and a time travel episode of the Dennis the Menace cartoon, so all of that might not be accurate.

**And as David Letterman once asked Patrick Stewart, "How DO they celebrate the 4th of July over in England?"

Monday, July 2, 2012

What is "Voice?"

"Voice" is one of those things that readers, managers, agents and executives all say that they're looking for in a script.  Unfortunately, when pressed to explain exactly what that means, the trouble in defining such an ephemeral quality becomes difficult.

But having made it a little more than halfway through my pilot viewings, I think I can make a stab at explaining this.  To a certain degree, voice probably is one of those "you know it when you see it" kind of things.  I can't tell you how to write in your voice, it's just something you're going to DO on your own.  Still recognizing voice is probably a good first step in defining your own voice.

I'll have more to say about this in the coming months, but despite a number of strong pilots this season, there are plenty that fell short of my expectations, weren't really for me, or were simply terrible by any standard.  Among the ones that didn't work, lack of a strong voice was a common flaw.  Particularly in comedies, I saw a lot of writers who failed to develop and express their ideas in an original way.  There was a lot of imitation, not just in plot and concept, but in overall expression.

That's a problem, people.

Too many comedies had a forced "quirky, wacky" tone to them.  Sometimes this took the form of a male protagonist clearly trying to channel Matthew Perry's "Chander" delivery.  Other times I could feel the writers straining to depict the elastic reality that defined Arrested Development or Scrubs.  Yet in these new entries, those elements felt unnatural.  It was like watching a wedding band try to rock out to Queen.  They play the notes, but there's no authenticity to them.

I briefly wondered if the problem was me, that I had simply tired of that style of comedy.  Then I watched The Mindy Project, written by Mindy Kaling.  In a lot of ways, it nailed the comedic tone that so many other shows failed at.  Kaling's had years to develop her voice and you could feel the comfort she has with the material.  The show isn't going to spawn a new era of comedy but it establishes a world, finds a tone that compliments that world and matches it with a heroine completely suited to that style.

So how can you develop your voice?  Write.  You're not going to find it on your first script, maybe even not on your second or third, but you'll get there eventually.  Your writing will likely start off with imitation of the sorts of things you like.  It's okay if your style is eventually similar to other writers out there.  What's important is that you find what you do well because that will sharpen your point of view and focus your writing that much more.

My first screenplay was a mystery-thriller that owed a lot to the pacing and style of Law & Order and Homicide, two of my favorite shows at the time.  My second script was sort of a self-aware romantic comedy, which made use of a lot of the meta-humor that defines Kevin Williamson's work.

My third script, however, came out of the idea to take my love of comic book superheroes and treat the criminal proceedings in their world with all the seriousness of Law & Order's courtroom shenanigans.  There was imitation there, but it was synthesized into something new by merging two genres I knew inside and out, with some of the self-aware conventions I picked up from Williamson and Whedon.  I reread it a while back and it clearly would need a major rewrite before I showed it to anyone, yet I think that was an important hurdle to cross.  I found I had something to say about two different genres I loved by putting them together and using that to deconstruct them.

You might say that's what Quentin Tarantino does.  So many of his movies feel like mash-ups of genres, concepts and other movies that he loves.  He steals from everything, but in doing that, he changes it in a way that makes it feel fresh and unique.  Even if the ground he covers is well-trod, it feels fresh.  THAT is Tarantino's voice.

It's funny that as I look at the scripts I've written since then, there's a strong element of deconstruction in at least two of them, even if they couldn't be more different in terms of concept and subject matter.  At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if someone detected a Joss Whedon influence on my writing, but I hope it's executed in a way that feels authentic to my passions rather than just me doing what Joss does because it sells.

It's strange because my writing is this weird contrast of stories like that and then character-driven stories that are all about exploring how particular people cope with extraordinary circumstances.  It was weird to go through my Dead Idea folder a while back and come across a concept that was very much in the same ballpark as the much-missed series Life Unexpected.  And this was an idea I had back in 2004!

The thing is, I only recognize these patterns in hindsight.  When I started writing, I just had these stories I wanted to tell and these ideas I thought were cool.  Eventually I developed that, getting past "imitation" and eventually writing like "me," not "me doing my best Kevin Williamson impression."  So my best advice to those of you attempting the same would be to keep writing new things.  Each script brings you closer to discovering your own voice.