Thursday, May 17, 2012

Start Short, Think Tall

So you don't have a couple million bucks, right?  Wait, you don't even have a couple hundred thousand bucks!  The shame of it all.  Yeah right!  Most of us don't.  The majority of us trying to make a first feature doesn't have anyone in their life willing to give that kind of money for a very high risk investment such as your film.  How do we get started then? My advice is to make a short film.  Short films can be a very effective, low-cost way to show people in the industry what you can do.  I've definitely mentioned this before, but what does it really take to make a short film and what's the difference between that and a feature?  I know what the wise-ass in you is thinking: "um, they're different lengths."  I know, but what I'm asking is what does that mean to the process of making a short film?

In the world of high definition video, short films are cheaper to make than they used to be.  My advice is to get started right after film school.  Use whatever short film you made and submit it to festivals.  That way you don't have to spend thousands of more dollars... yet.  Maybe that's all you'll need.  Most likely, though, after your senior year film's run, you're ready to make another, even better one.  There's a lot to be said for an indie short film that isn't your student film.  Believe it or not, from my experience, it'll get taken much more seriously right off the bat.  But let's start at the beginning.  I've been writing a lot about writing for a reason.  If a screenplay is bad, you're movie is more-or-less guaranteed to be bad.  It all starts there.  If you make a movie with a boring screenplay, you've not only wasted a lot of your money, but you've wasted a lot of your time.

I think short films are so much easier to write than features, but also much harder in unexpected ways.  It's a no-brainer that getting 20 pages out of your system versus 100 takes less time.  Features require sub-plots, extra characters, and a richer story.  I like doing that.  You get to play in your new world for a little longer and have more time to state your theme to the audience.  I've always been one to struggle shortening my scripts because they are too long.  But, there's something to say about writing short films too.  It's so much more to the point.  Short films are mini-features.  Most features are 90-120 minutes.  Let's say Act I, the setup, is about 25 pages.  Act II is about 50 pages.  The conclusion, Act III, is about another 25 pages.  Now imagine you have 20 minutes to just do the whole thing.  You know what that is?  It's a 5 page Act I, 10 page Act II, and 5 page Act III.  It's not about the less work involved, it's about the fact that you can introduce the characters and problems in 5 minutes, have them unfold in 10, then resolve everything in 5!  Now that's to the point!  Before you know you're done with the setup, the story's already afoot and it's time to conclude it.  Now, a 20 minute film that drags is the worst thing in the world, and a lot of them do.  We don't want that, right?  Think tall with your short and make sure it's the best it can be!

The ending of a short film is so, so important.  Okay, this can depend on the kind of story you have, but the one thing that I believe makes short films infinitely tougher to write than features, is that so much more pressure is on the fact that it needs a good ending.  An unexpected ending... now that's gold.  There's only so much one can do in 20 minutes, so unless the film is visually stunning or has a memorable twist ending, or at least an unpredictable one, it won't get noticed.  I think a big problem today is people aren't always aware of what's unexpected anymore.  What used to be unexpected isn't anymore.  For example, everyone dies in the end.  How many times have you seen that in a short film?  It used to be cool and inventive; now it's a dime a dozen.  Those are almost more common these days than everything working out, which used to be the cliché even longer ago.  Maybe I'm alone in this, but isn't the happy ending in a horror movie more of a twist than an unhappy one?  Wait, they actually survived?!  That never happens anymore!  Oh, look, they think they've won but the ten gunshots to the head didn't work and he's back... roll credits!  Raise your hand if you're sick of that.  Okay, maybe I'm blowing off steam.  Still, if you are doing a mystery or thriller, the endings need that "what the...?" factor.  Those usually are the best.  My advice is to avoid clichés at all costs.  Sounds easy, but it isn't.  If twists were easy, they suddenly wouldn't be twists anymore.  Think of something really, really good.  Turn the expected on its head.  Sometimes I like to think about what the two most likely endings are, then come up with some crazy third.  I know, easier said than done of course, but take the extra time to think up a great ending and it could really mean sink or swim at the festivals.

A short film is the best and cheapest way to prove what you can do as a director.  Festivals are a great way to show it.  So go for it and do what you've always wanted to do by starting short, thinking tall.

Friday, May 4, 2012

From the Depths of Hell: Writer's Block

Writing is a love-hate relationship for me.  I love coming up with ideas, brainstorming, typing it to the page, planning it, and it's the best when I'm just typing away and losing myself in the material.  At the same time, I hate the right before I'm actually writing it part.  You know, when you're looking at the screen and your fingers are on the keyboard and you think, "Now what?"  It's like telling the same story in the best detail possible all over again.  You've probably thought about it a hundred times in your head and maybe told some close friends and family of your new idea, and now you have to write it all down?  It's so annoying, right?  It's the same feeling as when something cool happened to you that weekend and you just told ten people in a row the same story because it was that interesting and you saw them all at different times of the day.  Now it's time to tell it an eleventh time, and this one has to be the best one!  That's what the burden of writing can be, and it usually feels that way to me:  I have to tell this story... again?

With this in mind, no wonder we don't want to get going.  But imagine telling the story again, but this time it gets better, and the details become so great, it's the best way you've ever told it.   You remember how interesting it was the first time, and now you're making it even better, remembering things you forgot about while tapping deep into your memory banks.  See?  This is writing!  Whether it's fiction or not, you're telling a story you've thought about already.  But that really is the fun of it.  It's the act of getting from a great idea, to obsessing over a story, to doing the actual work no one wants to do... until you get going.  And once you're done, you feel awesome!  One of the best feelings in the world for me is finishing a script.  You got it out, and you don't have to do it again... well, at least not from scratch.

So this brings up the demonic hell we call writer's block.  I've written on this subject before, but I'm going to go in a bit more detail this time.  So many people use writer's block as an excuse to not write.  We all know this as an excuse, and it is,, but it's a legitimate one.  The good news is it's avoidable, and just like anything else, it takes practice.  I feel one has to train his or herself to beat it.  It's funny, I never thought about it until now, but I've come up with ways to send writer's block back into the depths of hell!  Okay, maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic (who, me?), but if you're a writer (or any kind of artist), you probably know what I'm sayin'.  You know what I'm sayin'!

So here's a list of some writing roadblocks I've encountered... and I've come up with my solution on how kick writer's block in the back of the ass, followed by a backhand to the nuts:

1) Coming Up with Names:

PROBLEM: Okay, seriously, one of the most annoying things that stop me from writing is what the heck to name my characters.  You may have some figured out already, maybe not, but once minor characters you never thought about creep into the story and you're on a  roll, I find it can shut you down fast.  Let's call this guy Mark... no John... too common... George?  No wait, no one is named George under 30... umm....  annoying, right?  You were doing great and you're suddenly stuck!  You can't move.  Help!  Help!  I want to write page 14 now... what's this stupid bartender's name?!  Ahhhhh!!!!!

SOLUTION #1: Bartender.  Call the the dude "Bartender" and get on with it.  Finding a name is easy; writing the words is hard.  Call the bastard Bartender and get on with the story.  Worry about his stupid name later.

SOLUTION #2: This is something I love to do.  If all things are the same and you just need a name, take no more than 5 minutes and think about your biggest influence on your idea.  I like to make an homage to my biggest influences.  For example, one of the students in my film, "Clara."  I took this name from my favorite time travel series of all time, "Back to the Future."  Marty and Doc are a bit obvious, but in the third film, Clara was Doc's love interest.  Bam, the student's name is Clara.  The end, moving on, now start writing the stuff that really matters.  Names can be changed any time and easily.  Don't let it stop you.  (By the way, I also have a Bill and Ted in this story... it's totally excellent!)

2) Location Descriptions:

PROBLEM: I think I have this problem because, as I've said before, I'm not very good at descriptions.  Every time there's a new location, I always feel obligated to describe the basic look of the place.  Okay that's fine, but sometimes I'll end up wondering about all the things a science lab will have in it.  Then I find myself researching equipment, etc. and I'm taking forever and have completely lost my flow.  It's frustrating, because I can't move on with the story without describing one room!

SOLUTION: Same solution as #1.  The mind freaks out a lot more when the screenplay has yet to be written, rather than knowing you may have to go back and describe one or two rooms.  That stress can cause you to shut down and not be able to move on.  Do the research when you're done.  I usually put what I need to fix up in bold in the screenplay, that way I know to come back to it when I proofread.  It's a lot less overwhelming if the rest of the screenplay is finished and all I need to do is fill the room with science equipment.

3) I See a Keyboard, Now What Do I Do With It?

PROBLEM: You're sitting down, at a keyboard, your email's open, you have a browser with sites you're interested in... you're already distracted.  What's worse, let's say you have a blank screen, or a half written script, and you can't get going.  To me, this is the most common form of writer's block.  Get... me... going!

SOLUTION: Think about something you do NOT want to do.  You have to clean up, do your bills, call someone you can't stand... I don't know.  You have to go shopping, read something you're not interested in... whatever.  You will slowly find that writing is actually still somehow lower on the totem pole than writing a business letter.  And supposedly creative writing is what you love to do!  It's your mind tricking you... you do want to write but your brain doesn't want to think so damn hard.  Here's the answer: think about something you want to do even less, and you will start writing.  Convince yourself you're about to scrub a toilet, then see how your mind says, "Hell, no!" and starts writing like crazy.  Hey, I know what you're thinking... way too simple... but it's true.  Think about how you have to drive 3 hours to visit someone later.  Don't knock it until you try it!

4) Okay, That Scene's Done, What Do I Write Next?

PROBLEM: You've just finished a scene, but now you're up to a new one and just can't get going.  I find this usually means you're stuck at a point you haven't quite planned out yet.  Maybe you introduced your characters, but you don't know how to transition them into ACT II.  Maybe ACT II isn't long enough.  Maybe the climax to ACT III needs proper setup.  I hate these situations because the need to think really hard about basic structure can really slow you down, and it's hard to have it all laid out completely before you write.  Writing is usually done in pieces, so you rely on the characters and events to connect a lot of the dots.

SOLUTION: Step away from the keyboard and do something else.  Do something else that doesn't require too much thinking and just think things through so you do have a good outline of what's coming.  Seriously, some of my best ideas came up while showering, doing the dishes, on my way to the store, during my commute, right before sleep, even while dreaming!  Just think very hard about the next scene you have to write.  Play it in your head until it all becomes clear.  At this point, you should be running to the computer and typing away!

So listen: writer's block exists.  While it's definitely not a myth, it's certainly not as tough as its reputation.  It's only as tough as you'll let it be, and with just a few simple ways to beat it, it's very manageable.  So turn on that computer, type away, don't let the little things prevent you from doing the big things, and send writer's block back where it belongs: into the depths of hell!