Friday, September 13, 2019

It’s all about the story

If you go to my film website HERE you will see (and, I hope, purchase) a shirt I sell with the slogan “It’s All About The Story” on the front.  It's a lesson I learned in my filmmaking. But this is a story about a sweatshirt.

Quite a while ago I was working as the Marketing Communications Manager for a semiconductor company. And while I am good with jargon and good at faking it (I was a marketing person after all) my boss suggested that I take a course in Basic Electronics.

The course in question was at nearby MIT. It was a summer version of the freshman Basic Electronics course in two weeks. That is, Monday morning at 9AM you heard the first lecture of the “term.” And at 10AM, you heard the second lecture of the term and so on.  By lunch, one week of a regular academic calendar had been covered; by dinner, more than two weeks. And there were actual labs as well, also quite condensed. It was a true instance of “drinking from a fire hose.”

I survived the course. I still occasionally use words like “impedance” and “capacitance.” And I did have a much better insight, if not actual knowledge, about the process of digital processors and their underlying technologies.

As my reward to myself for surviving the course, I purchased an MIT sweatshirt. It had a hood and was warm enough to be very useful in New England weather. It was slightly ironic, given that my graduate degree is in the fine arts. But I wore it proudly and it kept me warm.

This is where the story takes over. I continued to wear this sweatshirt from time to time as my career pulled me through a succession of high tech companies. Most of the folks I worked with were not the people who read my resume when I was hired. I knew that the MIT sweatshirt told a story that was mostly fiction. And if someone asked, “Did you go to MIT?” or “When did you graduate?” my first response (part of the story-telling) was usually, “Oh, I never graduated from MIT.” If pressed further, I always admitted the true origin of the sweatshirt and we had a good chuckle over it.

But I’m sure I enjoyed a bit of high regard earned primarily by the garment (and my excellence at jargon and faking it). However, as a former artist working in high tech marketing, I was okay with this small boost.

It’s all about the story.

Monday, March 25, 2019


“Coverage is what you do when you don’t have any real idea about meaning or style.”

Okay, a somewhat strong statement. What do I mean by that?

Of course, it’s useful to understand what standard “coverage” looks like. Two people are seated together and having an important conversation. So convention says to shoot a two-shot (a wide view of the two of them) and then matching OTS shots (over the shoulder of first one, then the other speaker, medium tight on the one facing us). And we mustn’t “cross the line” or our viewer will be confused. And sometimes we push in for a closer close-up on the faces at a critical moment in the conversation.

Shooting that coverage isn’t a terrible idea, of course, other than the need for all the setups and all the takes. (An actor’s time and energy often being the most critical resource on a set.)

But conventional coverage isn’t based on any particular insight about the story, about the emotion of the moment, about the relationship of the two speakers to each other and to the topic being discussed or avoided in this conversation. Nor does it imply anything useful about how such a scene is assembled in the editing process, other than the idea that all of these shots might be useful and therefore need to be used.

Consider this scene. The conversation is between two boys of high school age. They are sitting at a small table in a coffee shop. Aaron is slight and awkward. The second boy, Michael, is older, taller and both self-confident and domineering. In the story, something terrible has happened to Michael’s friend and he’s determined to figure out who was responsible. He normally doesn’t even talk to Aaron, but he happened to see him at the table and decided to quiz Aaron a bit about the whole thing, partially motivated by an unconscious need to be in control. However, unbeknownst to Michael, Aaron was actually a witness to the terrible thing that happened to Michael’s friend and feels he may have been partly responsible. He’s terrified of Michael at this moment and trying desperately not to show it.

Okay, what kind of “coverage” makes sense here? We could do all the conventional shots and certainly put together something. But – this is just me quickly thinking about the scene – I might want to shoot this:

First, a two-shot in which Aaron is alone, sees Michael coming to his table, and “welcomes” Michael to sit down. And then slowly push in towards Aaron until we are in a full face close-up, all the while hearing the conversation. Then, just at the end, a somewhat wide but standard OTS on Michael, who gives up the conversation as useless and leaves. And back to the empty two-shot of Aaron, now alone and shaken. My thinking is that I want the audience to see how shaken Aaron is by these moments and how he is trying to conceal it. So we hear the entire conversation, but we don’t need to see much about Michael; the subtext of this scene is all about Aaron.

A key issue related to coverage is the pace of the final scene. If we use the two standard OTS shots and cut back and forth between the two speakers, it is easy for the pace of that cutting to contradict the emotional tension of the scene.

Consider a different scene. This is a romantic, comic conversation between Grace and Don. Both are in their thirties and have met briefly before and Grace asks if she can share the (only available) table with Don during a busy lunch hour at this café. Don is a bit strait-laced and Grace is quite the free spirit, so their banter is first a bit perplexing for Don and then, delightful. But Grace is called away by a phone call she takes, leaving the table and Don, who wishes she had stayed.

Again, free associating a bit on this scene, my thoughts would be these. First, we might want a long shot of the busy restaurant and Grace spotting the place at Don’s table. A version of the standard two-shot seems natural here to show their relative ease or unease as Grace settles in. I would probably also favor a very tight two-shot of the conversation showing both Grace’s wit and Don’s surprise or misunderstanding in the same shot. Finally, I would want the standard OTS on Grace when she gets the phone call that ends their time together, following her up and away from the table. And a single on Don of his reaction as she gets up and leaves him, the café and the frame.

My point is fundamentally this: doing conventional coverage makes every scene conventional. Style is a question of knowing what you do not need to tell the story. The audience does not feel more strongly or laugh louder because you did “all” the expected coverage. Nor does the production move swiftly through photography (or editing) if you always get the “all coverage you might need.” And while there are always situations in production where it is wise to prepare for problems by shooting a bit more than you need, it is also always wise to conserve time and energy by knowing exactly what you do not need.

A commonly repeated tale is that Alfred Hitchcock photographed only the parts of the scene he expected to use in editing the film, rendering alternative treatments impossible. True or not, it is the approach we should all be following as well as we are able, shooting what we need to tell our particular, unconventional story.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The future of the Internet?

Not on a film topic, bit since film and the internet ("Internet") seem to be intertwined, it seems pertinent.

I believe that we are passing through a period that amounts to the settling of the "wild west." Very little if anything is secure. Very little if anything is private. Very little can be anonymous. Every few months we hear about millions of credit cards and related info being swiped from this or that big corporation. Add to that all the thefts that are not reported. And what about all the automated calls to our cell phones that masquerade as being local calls?

Yet we shop and comment and read and react as if this were all working just fine. Luckily, it does work fine most of the time, but only because we are lucky.

There is another stage in the development of all of this. There must be. When we reach that stage, things will actually be secure and possibly even private. Of course, there are many commercial forces that mitigate against both of those goals.

Privacy and, in particular, anonymity may be at the heart of the future internet.

I imagine that there will be two internets in the future. In one internet, there will be no anonymity. Users will be strictly identified and responsible for everything they do, say, purchase. True security becomes possible (assuming all the backend systems grow up and fly right). In the second internet, anonymity is the rule and the sort of gossip and false witness we see everyday can flourish there.

Perhaps the identified users of the public internet will be able to see the anonymous internet and the anonymous users will not be able to see into the public internet. Maybe.

In any event, security is not here today but it is eventually coming, Its coming may be a crushing blow to freedom or a liberation from fear. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Value of Filmmaking?

I just finished shooting a short film and, as the holidays settle over us, I’ve been thinking more about the value of filmmaking. Not the value of filmmaking to the world or in the culture, but its value for me personally. Why do I bother to make films? What am I actually getting out of this? Where is it all going?

Barring any improbable uptick in my public film career (you know, that fantasy where Michelle Williams wants to be in your film) my films are not going to be discussed in film classes or shown in retrospectives anywhere. I’m not bound for either fame or fortune at this point.

This post may have the tone of a well-settled academic essay but do not underestimate the many likely holes in my logic. This post is a stab at talking about something important. Please let me know what you think.

Extrinsic value is the “exchange” value of a thing. If someone pays you $25 to work for an hour, that’s the extrinsic value of that work. The work may or may not be satisfying. If you find satisfaction in the work, that’s the intrinsic value.

When we talk about art of any kind, I think there are some clear levels of intrinsic value; different kinds of satisfaction we get from making anything creative.

First, there is the fundamental, childlike satisfaction from simply making anything: a mark on paper for example. This is pretty much something that every filmmaker (and artist) experiences. For your first film, it’s the sheer wonder that you had something to do with creating this luminous wonderful (to you) thing that is a REAL film!

This first level has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with just coming into existence. “We did it!” is enough for all to rejoice. For me (and probably for most of you) my first experience with this kind of intrinsic satisfaction probably came with a coloring book at age 3 or 4. And this kind of satisfaction pretty much happens most of the way through grade school. But with your first film project, there is a renewal of wonder and satisfaction simply because the thing exists now.

The second level amounts to the beginning of craft. My second (or third or fourth...) film now exhibits some aspect of craft that I recognize as “professional” or perhaps just “cool.”  “Look at how I rolled focus from him to her. Cool, hunh?” Perhaps I should describe this as film student satisfaction? We are striving to get beyond the simple “showing up” level of satisfaction by demonstrating the craft that we are able to achieve.

The third level, perhaps only slightly different from the second, depending on your background, is consciously imitating some film or TV show that you admire. This can occur at any level of craft but my point is that the intrinsic satisfaction is linked to the recognition that your thing (a freeze frame, go to black & white) is specifically an imitation of some work you find cool (NCIS act breaks, for example).

These “levels” are obviously not as different or clearly distinguished as my analysis implies. Nor are they immature or unsophisticated in any fundamental way. I’m pretty sure that accomplished filmmakers get these satisfactions from their work. And I am convinced that many indie wannabe filmmakers get much of their satisfaction from these kinds of things.

But, in my opinion (and experience), to go beyond these “levels” requires finding a personal connection to the work. Often the most accessible kind of personal connection is with documentary of some sort. I am attracted to a person, a place, an organization, a problem on a personal level, so I turn my filmmaking to this subject.  I rejoice in the celebration of the subject I care about.

If my form of finding a personal connection flows toward a fictional approach, this leads me to the story. And if telling the story is the satisfaction in making my film, then caring about what it means both to me and to a viewer becomes important.

The above could be thought of as the “fourth level” in my analysis. Whether documentary or fiction, the filmmaker is now driven by a personal connection to the material and by the desire to share this with a viewer.

Which hits the brick wall of filmmaking: finding an audience. Once we care primarily about the impact on a viewer, once we are basing our satisfaction on how successfully our craft supports that impact, we need an audience.

But the problem of reaching an audience is a classic and difficult problem. The most common solutions involve relatively large resources, marketing thinking and access to the public square, access which is typically purchased with celebrity. It’s the fame & fortune problem.

I think that local communities become critical at this point. My audience will never include millions but it could potentially include a community of local filmmakers and film appreciators. This is what motivated me to create a film series whose work was drawn entirely from local filmmakers. (That film series failed to find its audience for a variety of reasons.)

It’s a difficult goal to achieve but one that we all need.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Too Much & Too Little & To Whom?

I believe that any piece of writing should be "as long as necessary and as short as possible."  Discussion in my screenwriters' group has called my attention to some basic issues of length and brevity.

The first issue is too much or too little description. The second issue is how the plan for the writer to be the director explains or excuses the amount of description (among other things).

The description that clearly feels excessive to me generally is based on these impulses:

1)    Location geometry
It rarely actually matters -- in a script -- whether the dresser is to the left or the right of the bed. Yet many writers get a vision in their head and are compelled to record a lot of details about such things.

In practice, of course, should the film be produced, the actual room may be quite different but the scenes are likely to be fine. So, the question of where everything is should only be detailed when dramatic action critically relies on it. Even then, many things can be described very simply.

2)    Blocking the actors
It’s just not necessary to say that someone opens the car door and gets in. Or that they walk around the car to get in. Unless these details are critical to action, they are unnecessary. “Gets in” is all any reader needs to understand that someone unlocked the car door, opened it, got in, adjusted the mirrors, started the engine, put the car in gear and moved away. If there is a dramatic reason to describe everything (the character suffers from OCD?) then, of course, fine. But otherwise, less is more.

3)     Directing the actors
Actors are creative. Describing in detail when they brush the hair out of their face and after which word they pause should be unnecessary and may be considered intrusive. The script must make it very clear what the character is feeling. The character may even have a set of typical behaviors. Fine. Just don't get hung up on a lot of detailed description of ordinary movements and reactions. Save this for when a character does something completely unexpected.

Apart from those common problems, I see the pros and cons of action description this way:

Too Much? Too Little?
PROs:  Might clarify the writer's intention better Brevity is a good thing
CONs:  Current style: keep descriptions brief, e.g. 3-lines The feeling is opaque or invisible
Florid or excessive description is often bad writing
A long impassioned description may actually lose some readers

"It’s OK, I'm going to direct it myself"
Many struggle with the fact that a script is not an end product; it's the beginning of a process.  A process that will be completed by a director who, in turn, drives the production.

Nevertheless, I would say that erring on the side of too much description is likely to be better. I've read scripts where it was impossible to tell what really mattered in a scene and the writer-director simply asserted that they planned to work with actors to bring that out. I'm thinking actors need the script to give them a clue beforehand, perhaps even before they decide to participate.

My own script, that I am going to direct, should be no different than the best possible script I would write to sell or have someone else direct.

Why should I go through all that “bother?”  For the same reason I write in my journey or discuss a plan with colleagues: to understand myself better. Having the discipline to both commit to and to fully express what you (the writer) need in the story is a huge benefit to you the director, producer and cheer-leader.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Success? Obstacles?

Robert Hardy, who runs recently sent a bunch of folks these questions:

"Hey friend,

I have two quick questions for you...

1. What would being successful as a filmmaker look like to you?
2. What's your biggest obstacle right now in pursuing that success?"

I thought these were good to think about and here's my (relatively quickly composed) reply for him.
Decent questions, though life is complicated.

1.    Success as a filmmaker, for me, at this point, starts with the personal feeling of accomplishment.  On a broader scale, success would initially be success in film festivals.

So if my next film were to be picked up by a variety of the top (Oscar-qualifying) festivals, that would be a great step.  But there are two parts to this.  First of all, there is the simple gratification of being recognized beyond a small circle for some artistic achievement.  Second, however, is the possibility that this recognition could open some other doors.

1A.  I’m devoting most of my “film energy” these days in writing scripts that I will likely not ever produce myself. Success here is a bit more concrete in that the definition of success would be to sell a script.  I’ve been using the pitch opportunities offered by and this has opened some doors. So I think it’s a matter of time and quality (and a bit of luck) to move forward on this.

2.    Biggest filmmaking obstacle is mostly time, occasionally masquerading as money. In this case, time really means improving my artistic ability, my filmmaking “quality” as much as possible.  However, I also accept that the films I find the most rewarding to make may not be the ones that fit with the taste of any festival.
    It would be facile to say that money for entry fees was the obstacle. Theoretically, it would be great to pitch any film into 250 festivals, but that doesn’t really attract me that much. I’m more interested in the best festivals.

2A.    There are two simple steps in the screenwriting success equation.  Many worry at great length about step #2. I’m still thinking I have a lot of work to do to develop my craft.  The rules are these:
    #1. Write a great script.
    #2. Get it in front of some folks who might be interested.

If you can’t do step #1, the next step is unimportant. So the biggest obstacle is "simply" writing a great script.

Love to hear your thoughts about all this stuff.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Eight of Fifteen Things

I ran across a lovely post that many filmmakers have seen titled, "Fifteen Things Wrong With Your Short Film."  It's pretty telling and honest and we have all committed these sins at one time or another, I think.

I'll admit, my favorite is #3, "your film has opening credits." They explain that, in addition to adding to the running time for no dramatic reason, no one knows or cares about your actors or crew (unless you have corralled someone well known for the right reasons) (and then, it's not necessary).

I spent a few moments looking at this article and the list of fifteen things and made a judgement of how many of the fifteen things are fundamentally script / story problems. I came up with eight.

Here's the list, with the eight items I attribute to script in red.

1.           Your film is too long.
2.           Your film starts too slow.
3.           Your film has opening credits
4.           Your film has bad sound
5.           Your film has bad acting
6.           Your film lacks originality
7.           Your film is in Black & White for no reason
8.           Your characters are boring
9.           Your film has interesting characters but they don’t do anything.
10.       Your was more satisfying to make than watch.
11.       Your film is good considering...
12.       You made your film in 48 hours
13.       You didn’t watch other short films
14.       You list meaningless laurels
15.       You made a bland profile documentary.

Of course, #1 (too long) is an editing decision as well, though many will claim that editing is the final rewrite of the script. Starting too slow may not be story-related but I think it typically will be. Items 6, 8, and 9 should be obvious.

I thought about #10 for a while. At the end of the day, I think we may enjoy making a film of any kind (good or bad) but the story quality is the determinant for the audience. Number 11 is a special case of #10, I think. Their discussion of #11 amounts to saying that the constraints and problems you faced are (unfortunately) irrelevant to the film. You succeeded in making a film with a wind-up Bolex limiting you to only two takes, each no longer than 75 seconds - no one cares.  It's all about the story.

One could argue that #13 is not a script or story problem, but I think it is the upstream problem. If you haven't seen a really well-crafted, clever story done in eight minutes, you may not realize what is possible. On the other hand, I admire some TV commercials for the amount of story-telling they manage in 15 or 30 seconds.

I think #15 is a bit unfair in the original list, although it makes sense. In the original article, their point was not that such docs are inherently bad, just that they don't generally rise about the clutter of similar projects. But the main knock on them is lack of dramatic arc, i.e. story.

I understand that, for a short film, a good script doesn't always have to be a classically written document. But it needs to be a good script / story no matter how it is conceived.