To start with, the Lakers-Celtics game was last night during our screenings. Grrrrr… I recorded it for when I got home, stayed up until 1:00 watching it and the Lakers lost by one point.
I'll try not to let my lack of sleep and bitterness spill over into the blog – but I can't guarantee it won't effect my grammar.
It was Therapy Night last night. So many of the 15 movies we watched were either about therapy, had underlying themes of therapy, characters that needed therapy, or sometimes filmmakers who obviously could use some time on the couch. This is all fine in a great film, but we didn't see a lot of greatness last light – in the movies or, later, from the Lakers. When I get the feeling that making the film was a life-changing experience for the filmmaker, I get a little upset. It's supposed to be a life-changing experience for the audience. If you're going to make me sit through the vanquishing of your inner demons while doing nothing about mine, then pay me $200 an hour.
We also had a few movies that just made no sense from a plot point of view, prompting one of the screeners to suggest I write about test audiences. Before you lock picture, make sure you show your movie to as many honest, trustworthy, non-friends-&-family as you can. Get their honest feedback. See if you can pick up their body language as they watch it. See where they have questions or don't understand something. It's okay to have them while the story is unfolding, but if the film doesn't answer all the questions by the time it's over, your story fails on the most basic level – communication. The old days of experimental theatre arts, where the auteur would say, "The audience is too dim to understand my work" are over (thank God). The audience pays you to tell them a story. If you tell them one that makes no sense, you've failed.
Moc vs. Doc. The Mocumentary has become such a prevalent genre among submissions, which run along side actual Documentaries, that often it's hard to tell if something is a Moc or a Doc. In neither case is this a good thing. Okay, Orson Wells got us all with War of the Worlds. Ha-ha, very funny. Stop it. The best Mocs – or the best comedies for that matter – all give the audience what I call "permission to laugh." Some little wink and a nod to the audience early on that tells us, it's okay, I'm being funny on purpose. When watching a movie where you're not sure if it's real or a parody, you spend the entire time trying to answer that question – and miss the point of the film. So, if you're a serious documentarian, understand that anything even close to satire is going to make us wonder – if you're a comedian, make sure you let us in on the joke. Cast Fred Willard in an early cameo – then we can all settle in for a fun ride.
Sound. Sound. Sound. I've said it before, I'll say it again.
As a filmmaker you only have two tools to work with: Light and Sound. If you don't spend as much time and energy on your sound, then you are ignoring 50% of your job. Every other aspect of your movie could be perfect, and you'll still get a failing grade. This is especially true of voice over / narration, but I wrote about that the other day.
ibid. op sit.
On that note, there is a sound effect that needs to be retired. They don't have names, so it's hard to say exactly what it is. Some call it the David Lynch/Twin Peaks grinding metal feedback sound. It also sounds a lot like the very last piece of the Dr. Who end credits – which was first done in 1963, so that shows you how original everyone is who uses it. I swear this sound is in 75% of the movies we watch. Not only that, it blares over dialogue. It clips. It intrudes on the story. It walks into the room and says, "Aren't I cool?" which, of course, means it's not.
That brings us to video effects. Just because we can now all do them, doesn't mean we have to. Try cutting your movie together the old-fashioned way. Figure that for every edit that isn't a simple splice of film, you're going to have to pay a lab a ton of money. Then see where an effect is so required in the telling of the tale, that you're willing to dig into your pocket to pay for it. Put those one or two in. The rest are not necessary and detract from what you're trying to say.
I wrote in my notes, "We get the point, move on." I write this a lot. When you're making a short you don't have to follow Shakespeare's 3-rule (say it three times so the audience gets it). It's a short. If your character is paranoid, one example is all we need. If you want to do more, fine, but make them quick and subtle. You're a boxer in a one-round fight. Jab-jab, bring on the big punch, and go to a neutral corner.
To end on a positive note, a word about the power of committed, talented actors. One of those movies I mentioned that made no sense had such a fantastic cast that every one of the screeners was riveted. I don't know what the scores were like, but there's a good chance that film will be carried into the festival on the shoulders of the cast. Somehow they found something in the words they could relate to on a moment-to-moment basis, and their commitment to each moment made us want to watch the next – even though, collectively, the pieces didn't add up to anything.
Good acting can save a filmmaker when all else fails.