Thursday, January 20, 2011

The screenings have started.

Granted, we’re a bit late, so April and May are going to be a bitch, but that’s life in the big city.

From now until every submission has been screened, this blog will be a behind-the-scenes peak at our process. For those of you who are new, here once again, are the ground rules:

1) Films will not be mentioned by name.
2) Criticisms refer to TRENDS we see, not calling out one specific film.
3) Occasionally, when praising something, I will drop enough hints for the filmmakers to say to themselves, “He’s talkin’ about us!”
4) #3 does not mean that particular film will get into the festival – as many other factors apply.

So, let’s get to it.

We welcomed two new screeners this year, both artists of the screen and volunteers from previous years, so there are some fresh eyes watching your stuff – always important, since some of us can get a little jaded season after season.

Right off the bat we had a film that hit on one of my pet peeves – black & white video. Of course, I’ve seen some brilliant stuff in this format, and we have had it in the festival, but it’s rare. You should know that if you plan to finish in black & white, then every decision you make along the way has to be considered for the format. Lighting, set, costumes, makeup, all need to be tested ahead of time. You don’t just flip the color off on the camera or computer – you have to have do your homework. You also need to have somewhere within the story an answer to everyone’s question, “Why is this in black & white?”

We had a couple of films where the actors were all one note – either always shouting, always quite, or always on the same rhythms with the dialogue. In the last case, this can be the writer’s fault just as much as the actors, but in every case the blame ultimately falls on the director. A film – or a play, or a novel, or just about any other form of art – is like a piece of music, to be good it has to have variations in pitch, pace, and volume. These variations fall within the context of the piece, of course, but they have to be there. How bad would music be if it was all one note played steadily by itself? When you’re working on your script – whether you’re a writer, director, actor, editor, or novelist – put on some good jazz. Get complicated rhythms in your head and try to work them into the piece. If you’re in actor, rent anything with James Whitmore in it. He was a master with syncopation.

On a similar subject: Dramatic shorts are probably the hardest thing to pull off. Drama must be earned, or it becomes melodrama. We often see films where the cast – either of their own accord, or because of bad direction – force the drama. They push the seriousness of every situation. When does that ever happen in life? If you’ve got a serious, dark, script, then look for the lighter side of it. Don’t let your cast emphasize the weight of it. Instead, have them work to make it lighter. The audience will appreciate the character for their struggle against the obstacles instead of reminding us with every inflection that this is “important.”

If your movie is called 24 Hours With Sam, and it starts with “1 a.m.” and an hour into the movie another card comes up with “2 a.m.” then you have to understand your audience is going to say to themselves, “Oh, Jesus Christ, we don’t have to sit through 24 of these, do we?” If you’re going to announce to your audience how many segments there are in your movie, then you’ve given yourself a difficult storytelling task. Be aware of it.

When we’re all together for our screening sessions, we’re watching shorts, so the following note only applies to that format. The note is: GET TO THE POINT! Sure, if you’re doing a slice-of-life style thing, this is easier said than done, but remember when you say your film is a short, the audience has an internal clock running. If two minutes goes by and we still don’t know who the characters are, what are their objectives and obstacles, then we’re going to start to wonder when the film is going to GET TO THE POINT.

We’ve all heard the adage, “write what you know.” That doesn’t just apply to subject matter. As artists we need to re-create what we hear, see, taste, touch, and smell. Dialogue between two people needs to sound like dialogue, not typing. Sure, get poetic. I love that. Sound like Mamet, Simon, Sorkin, or Shakespeare, I don’t care – but ultimately we have to feel like we’re watching people relate to each other – not a writer relating to the words on their page.

The same can be said for filmmakers who try to re-create what’s currently hot. I can’t tell you how many imitation we’ve seen of The Office. Before that, everyone was trying to be the next Terrantino. That can work, of course, but it has to ring true. You have to take that style and transcend it. Make us forget you’re doing something “in the style of…” Also, be aware that, if you’re trying to make movie like this year’s hit, screeners will be seeing a pile of them exactly like yours – so you have to be a hundred times better.

Thanks for reading.

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