Friday, March 26, 2010

Entertain and Educate / Art and Business.

We get a lot of submissions from film schools. Sometimes it's fun to play "guess that university" – if it's Sci-Fi and visual effects, it's bound to be USC; a drama about an important international or human relations issue, AFI, etc. This is all great. We love film school submissions.

The last few years we've had small floods of films from one university or another that are head & shoulders above the rest. We might argue over this, but I'd say the last two years Chapman took the prize. Great scripts, good casts, highest technical quality. We'd see the Chapman logo at the beginning of a movie and think, "Oh, cool, a good one."

But this year – so far – it's been Florida State. We haven't screened all the submissions yet, so there might be an exception in the pile somewhere – but so far every film from FSU has rocked our world. I'm not saying you'll all get in – so many factors go into selecting a program – but I can say that you all deserve it. So take a bow, Seminoles. Job well done, and thank you for the entertainment.

Ever since Ancient Greek merchants decided they could package and market Egyptian religious theatre, there has been a struggle between Art and Business. With a very few exceptions the works of art that have survived were made by people who understood the business needs of their time and fulfilled them with the greatest craftsmanship and sensitivity. A good artist doesn't see limitations, only challenges.

Short films are no different.

I bring this up because we had a film last night that was beautifully shot: nice sound, a great display of talent, in many ways a very fine piece of art. But it had no plot and it was 30 minutes long. We all agreed that it would a terrific piece to put on your TV during a party as background entertainment, but there was no way an audience would sit still and watch it. It just didn't stand alone.

So from the artistic standpoint, it fit all the requirements of fine filmmaking – but it didn't hold up from a business perspective. It wouldn't give the audience their money's worth. I get in big trouble every time I bring this issue up with some theatre crowds, but it is the artist's responsibility to create a good value for the audience's dollar.

Entertain and Educate. Art and Business.

We had a terrific film last night with one small issue that's not a deal-breaker, but oh should it be avoided. During the climatic emotional scene, the actress's face was too dark to see. This was especially a shame since the rest of the movie was so well lit. I was dying to slip a bounce board just below the fame to get a splash of light on her face.

Before you say it, yes, there are times when an actor's silhouette can be a powerful image. The Exorcist comes to mind. This was not one of those times – and it happens a lot. I don't understand it in the digital age, you've got a monitor right there. Can you see the actor's face? No? Fix it. Better to screw up with too much light on a face than none at all.

There is no more powerful storytelling tool for our species than our faces. We are hardwired from birth to read what's happening there. If you take that away, you'd better have a damned good reason for it. In this case, they didn't. The poor actress was working hard, ripping her guts out, and we couldn't see it.

So, please, make sure you've got a good ole white piece of poster board handy at all times. You never know when you might need it.

We had another good "incitement" film. I think it might have been from FSU, in fact. If you're not a regular reader, an incitement film is a movie that feels like the first ten pages of a feature script. It is a complete story in and of itself, but the ending hints there is more to come.

This is a far better way to turn a feature script into a short. Regular readers, say it with me: If you can cut your feature down to a short, then the feature can't be any good. If the feature is good, then it won't make sense as a short.

Plus, if you're planning on using a short as a fundraising tool for your feature, the incitement method is fantastic. A good incitement is designed to … incite … the viewer into watching the whole story. Hook them. If I had money to invest in film, I'd have written a check as the lead character drove away at the end of the movie. I wanted to know where she was going. I wanted to know the consequences of her actions. At the same time, I felt like I'd seen a complete story.

That's the way to do it.

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Three Cheers for Romance

Before I get to the shorts this week… I watched a feature submission the other day that made me want to give a shout out to Romantic Comedies in the independent world. I think the genre gets a bad rap; maybe because they are so light and fluffy, maybe because they aren't serious or dramatic, people think they are easy to make. Having seen more noble, but bad, attempts than any one person should have to sit through in a lifetime, I can tell you that's not the case. I don't think there's a more difficult genre to pull off, especially on a low budget.

You've only got two things to work with in a Romantic Comedy – words and chemistry. No MTV filmmaking tricks are available to save you. You can't cover up bad acting or a slow script with flashy editing, a dramatic soundtrack, or anything else. It's old-school, invisible art of filmmaking. Your cast has to be believable from the leads down to the extras. It all has to work.

And the scripts in Romantic Comedies have to be so personal. In a good one, that's great. We all love to see that others share our foibles and frailties. In a bad one, I tend to write in my notes, "filmmaker needs therapy." They usually display their anger for the opposite gender. If you get the sense the writer/director never got a date in high school – or worse, was humiliated on one – then chances are, you're watching a bad Romantic Comedy.

And that's what makes the good ones nice to see. So let's all take a moment to appreciate the well-made Romantic Comedy.

Okay? Back? On to our shorts. (Pun intended).

We had two movies that wouldn't play. This happens a lot with home burnt DVDs. No worries, we always contact the filmmakers to ask for a replacement, but you guys should do yourselves a favor. Send two copies when you submit.

While I'm on that. Opening menus are nice. Nothing fancy is needed, just that little pause to make sure everyone's paying attention before we hit play. Please, please, please, don't have the movie loop back to start again when it's over. Nothing kills a great ending like going back to the beginning.

I've complained before about shorts that seem like cut down features. One of the ways we diagnose that syndrome is when a movie just doesn't make sense. The plots get so convoluted, and have so many major points missing that I find myself wondering how the cast knows what's going on in the scenes they're in. We watched one like this last night and it reminded me of a saying they have in theatre:

If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage.

If you find you're having to explain plot points to your cast, then you have a big problem that needs to be fixed right away. No one is going to study your script more closely than the actors playing the roles (okay, your department heads will, too – but they don't have to memorize it). If a cast member says, "I didn't understand why…" then big red flashing lights should go off in your head. Sure, you might be able to explain to them everything you're thinking. They'll figure it out and play the hell out of it – but read the rule again. You won't be in the audience to make those same explanations. Figure out a way to get the conversation you just had with your actor into the mouths of the characters.

I railed against the misuse of Black & White video last week, so right on cue; we get a great one last night. Talk about "on the page, on the stage" the characters come right out and talk about what motivated the story to be told in B & W – which answered the question everyone has when you see a new film sans color. And the DP did a masterful job. The blacks were deeply black. The faces were full of character. Nicely done.

We had a couple of films that were nicely done up to a point. These are so painful for us screeners. Believe it or not, we want your movie to be good. We are pulling for every film at the start. And when it's good, we rejoice. So there's nothing worse than be in the middle of good movie that suddenly goes south.

So many things can go wrong. One last night – another beautiful, purposeful, Black & White – just extended its parable too long. Cut that movie in half, and it'd be great. As it was, it fell flat.

Another film introduced an entirely implausible character and subplot. It was like they started to make one movie, then changed their minds half way through. So sad when that happens – unless it's Dusk 'Til Dawn, then for some odd reason, I'm coming along for the ride.

Finally – it's getting late in the submissions season. This means there's a good chance I'm going to babble on this week about something I said back in January. I try not to do that, but we do see a lot of the same types of problems again and again – so, I hope you'll cut an old man some slack as we get closer to the festival. In return, I'll try to keep this blog as entertaining and informative as possible.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Words on Words on Film

After screening last night, I was up late working on my own stuff, so I'm a bit bleary-eyed. I hope this comes out coherent.

The night started out with two movies and two different peeing scenes. Gee, thanks guys. If this blog accomplishes nothing else, I hope it will teach independent filmmakers that 90% of scenes containing the expulsion of body fluids are not unique, cool, hip, edgy, or uber-indie. We see them all the time.

Last week I talked about how the Art Department saved a movie. This week we had quite a few bare-walled apartments. Hey, I get it. You're a starving artist – which means you have no money for art. But is that the case for your characters as well? A wide, long shot of two people talking in front of a blank white wall is boring. Learn from good designers. Use that space to help define your characters and at the same time, draw a wondering eye back to the action of the scene. Empty space is a missed opportunity and the sign of a lazy filmmaker.

That brings me to something Leslee brought up in a good way. "Location, Location, Location." In this day and age of easy digital, find an interesting place to shoot. Get some depth behind your characters. Give us some eye candy by way of the space. Show us something we've never seen before. That's what makes a movie worth the ticket price.

Every year we get movies by actors about how difficult a life it is to be an actor. They all have one thing in common – bad acting. There's nothing worse than a scene where a character is complaining about how stupid "they" are for not giving him/her the part, when it's clear to everyone watching the movie that the actor playing the actor can't act.

And even if they were the best talent in the world, becoming an actor is a choice, not a right. It's nearly impossible to make a movie about a person complaining about something they've chosen to do. One notable exception is LARRY THE ACTOR, which is hands down the best movie about the profession in recent memory.

Regular readers know how I rail on about slow music over slow scenes in slow movies. Last night, we had a film that got it right. Pumping, fast, intense music over a slow, emotional shot of a young girl missing her father. Worked great. Terrific young actress, too. This particular film also nailed the concept of surreal imagery. It wasn't crazy shots for crazy's sake, but pictures rooted in deep human emotions that came together to tell a story. Good job.

A heads up to all you folks with emotional monologues – usually featuring a woman, usually about a break-up – last year I screened two features in this style. Last night we had one that had some very nice moments – but ultimately these films come off looking like someone's acting reel. The writing tends to be very good, but essays or personal emotional venting aren't well-suited to cinema. That doesn't mean it can't be done, but you should be aware that several filmmakers are trying it, so you can find yourself up against the "not another one of those" feelings from a screener. In our defense, when they are good, we get over that feeling.
We had our first black & white video short last night. Some thoughts on that: If you're thinking of shooting in black & white, please understand that your decision changes everything. You can't just turn the color off on your video camera. For one thing, video doesn't handle black & white very well – so you have to do some fancy DP tricks to make the blacks truly black – or shoot on film. Once that homework's complete, then every set-up – angle, lighting, action, etc. has to be done with black & white in mind. What works with color doesn't always work without it, and vice verse. So tread lightly.

Finally, I want to say a word about dialogue.

Capturing natural speech is the art of screenwriting. Having a good story is imperative, but if that story unfolds via dialogue that sounds like it's there only to get the plot points out – which often makes me say I can hear the keyboard clicking in the background – then the story will crumble under the weight of broken suspension of disbelief.

Bad improve has the same effect. Actors aren't writers. It can be so painfully obvious when a director has told the cast what plot points are important in a scene, then asked them to improve. It sounds about as natural as a 3-headed cow singing Dixie.

Visual artists are trained to see. Actors and writers are trained to listen. Spend time out in the world listening to real people in real conversations. Then when you're polishing your script, hear the words in your head and make them natural on the page. If you're also the director, you must then forget the way the words are in your head and see what the cast gives you. Don't be afraid to ask them to "loosen up" your written words. If you've done your job in casting, then you'll have a ton of experienced people to work with. Take advantage of that. Get their feedback – always with the understanding that the final decision is yours. As a director, you don't have to come up with every idea, but you do approve or disapprove them.

Have a dialogue with your fellow artists, so the dialogue in your movie doesn't sound typed.

Thanks for reading. See you next Friday.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Think Positive

Someone told me I should be more positive in my blog; that I'm always focusing on what's not working. Obviously, this someone has never been to an art school.

But point taken. This week, I'm Mr. Positive – and I picked a good week for it, as we had a ton of great movies last night. You'll notice with the good ones that I offer a few more details. If you've submitted a short this year, have fun trying to figure out if one of these is yours.

Before we got started, I talked with Leslee Scallon, co-founder and head honcha of the fest about why world premieres are so important. I always thought it was for ticket sales – which is true. Extremely independent festivals like DWF rely heavily on box office as a way of keeping afloat – but Leslee made another good point.

It's the energy. When this is the first time a movie has been on the big screen, something magical happens. There's a buzz in the crowd, as cast & crew mingle with the audience before hand. Pictures are taken. Drinks are consumed – sometimes to well-deserved excess. At DWF, the filmmakers for that night are the kings and queens of the ball – and in their court are the producers, writers, directors and stars of the movies that premiered the night before, or will the night after. Friendships are made at events like these that last a lifetime.

Compare that to the movie that has been seen 3 or 4 times at a cast & crew screening, then smaller festivals around town, on a big screen TV at a producer's party… The friends and family that show up for the fifth screening are all supportive, and happy to be there, and sure being at Dances With Films is still a milestone – but the magic is gone.

The best films still get in, but given a choice between two wonderful movies and one time slot left… We like the magic.

On to last night's short films.

We started with an International Must See that nailed the short film format – likely because it was based on a short story and from a country known for its poetic, allegories. Great acting and filmmaking skills didn't hurt either.

For those facing the blank page and wanting inspiration, look to the allegory. Shorts are a great place to have characters that represent more than themselves. You can hit us over the head with it if you like, since you've just got the one shot.

The next film got mixed reviews, but a Must See from me. I can't tell you how many times I've shouted at the screen when it fades to black, "Be the end! End it right there," only to have it fade back up to bring us more story than can be covered in a short. Last night this movie did the right thing. It stopped just as I wanted to watch a feature's worth of these two characters and their families. Brava! Had the door opened on the next scene, the story would have had to continue for an hour and a half to do it justice.

The old stage adage is true – always leave them wanting.

The next film was a lot of fun, and brings me to a positive point about style. This particular short was a broad comedy, complete with some nice shtick – which I always love when done right. From the opening shot, this filmmaker let us know we were watching a silly, but well-made movie, and that he was in control of his craft. That puts an audience at ease. We can relax and let a professional take care of us.

I always think of defining style like kids playing baseball. Before the game starts – or before any of the artists can create – the players lay down the grown rules. The curb of the street on the left side is the foul line. Hit it over Mrs. Smith's fence is an automatic out, 'cause we can't get the ball back. No sliding into third base because it's a car, and so on.

These rules must be established before the game is played, or before filmmaking can begin. Unlike rules from the outside world – where breaking them becomes the art form – rules of style are set by the artists, so how they are adhered to is more fun to watch then how they can be broken.

We had a couple of Must See movies that established and stuck to their style wonderfully – one of them with little kids in it, which made it even more amazing. Good job.

There was another film that was a mystery to all of us screeners. We all agreed that we should have hated it. A frat-boy type slackers movie. We see these a million times a year. 99% of them suck, but this one didn't, and it was very hard to figure out why. Part of it, I think, was the Art Department. For those not in the know, that covers the set and props. Since most indie films shoot on location it's not actually the set, but how it's dressed and the props that are used.

This curious film had props that gave us the same sense of being in the hands of skilled filmmakers as the opening shot from the afore mentioned movie. From a simple shot of garbage on a table, we got the feeling that these folks might be good. That feeling lasted long enough to get to the first joke, which was cute. The plot was slow to develop, which is usually death in a short, but thanks to the little things done by props – little things that I'm sure took hours and hours of work – this movie won us over.

That doesn't mean it – or any of these films – will get in the festival. A lot of other factors go into the decision making. It's easy to nix the bad ones. It's a shame to have to pass on the promising, but not-quite-there-yet movies. It's horrible to have 2 or 3 great films and only one slot open to program.

There I go getting negative again. Guess it's time to leave it until next week.

Thanks for reading.