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.