Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Generate a Story Idea, Option 1: Imagine the Worst Case Scenario

True story: Many years ago, four Atlanta businessmen decided to take a weekend trip to the woods of North Georgia, hoping to canoe a river one last time before it got damned up. They didn’t plan things very well, and soon found themselves hopelessly lost on the river, far away from their cars or any town. They gradually came to realize, however, that the woods around them were filled with backwoodsmen. What happened next?

I’ll tell you what happened. Some mountain folk invited them back to their cabin, fed them a great meal and then escorted them back to their cars, with a warm farewell and an offer to stop by again anytime.

As the four men were on the way home, one of them wondered aloud, “Gee, what would have happened if those mountain folk hadn’t been so nice to us?” Things might have ended there, but one of the four men was James Dickey, who wrote the novel (and later screenplay) “Deliverance” based on that supposition. Ever since, the whole world has associated the fine people of North Georgia with psychotic depravity. No good deed goes unpunished.

One can carp about the ethics of throwing one’s rescuers under the bus like that, but it’s still a good lesson to writers: if the worst thing that ever happened to you wasn’t that bad, feel free to write about the worst thing that could have happened to you.

This gives you a chance to tap into the fears you actually felt, even if they turned out to be unfounded. After all, what really fuels Deliverance isnt the (invented) evil of the tormentors, but the (very real) feelings of feelings of masculine inadequacy and disconnectedness from nature that grip the isolated men.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #121: Don’t Presume Your Premise

I sometimes get to read scripts long before they’re made, and one of my favorite scripts in recent years was cheekily titled “Fuckbuddies”. Naturally they had to change the title, and they wanted to call it Friends with Benefits, but they found out there was already a competing project with that name, so they ended up with the name No Strings Attached.
“Fuckbuddies” was a very popular script, largely because the screenwriter’s “voice” was so strong: it felt fresh, real, and raw. But by the time it made it to the screen, directed on autopilot by old duffer Ivan Reitman, that bold voice had been reduced to a mutter, and the resulting movie is shockingly awful. Friends with Benefits, on the other hand, earned fewer fans as a script, but it really came alive onscreen, making for a surprisingly fun movie.
It’s tempting to blame NSA’s script/screen disconnect entirely on rewrites, and those certainly didn’t help, but it also had another problem: that bold fresh voice had been masking some fundamental construction problems, and once the voice was muted, those problems became glaringly obvious. 

NSA fails, in part, because it simply presumes its premise. We start with a too-cool-for-school heroine who has never had any interest in romance. When she announces to a schlubby acquaintance that they should have a loveless romance, he hastily agrees, and the movie is off and running. It’s not that her beliefs are unmotivated—we certainly understand how her home life left her afraid of commitment, but that’s just backstory, we never get to see those scars form.
FWB, on the other hand, builds its premise in a much more straightforward way. We begin by intercutting our two future lovers as they both go through exasperating break-ups with annoying exes. We then see how satisfying their work lives are by comparison. By the time they meet, we totally understand why each would be reluctant to get seriously involved.
Most telling are the actual hook-up scenes in the two movies. NSA goes for the old “jump each other’s bones when you least expect it” set-up, which always gets a laugh, but rarely makes sense. FWB, refreshingly, shows a far more believable hook-up: a guy and girl are hanging out platonically when, struck by a fleeting moment of horniness, the guy makes a half-hearted pass at the girl. They then discuss whether or not that’s a good idea. After coolly batting the idea back and forth in a sexy, witty, but utterly realistic way, they decide to go for it: provided that they don’t bring emotion into it. With that, the premise is strongly established, and they’re off.
Alas, this is why screenplays need to have rock-solid infrastructure: because that’s all that will be left by the time they make it to the screen. “Fuckbuddies”, on the other hand, had as its selling point a certain je ne sais qua, which translated onscreen to “Say what?”

If you’ve got a strong dialogue voice, you might have more luck on TV—and sure enough “Fuckbuddies” writer Liz Meriwether now has a witty, quirky hit sitcom, “The New Girl”, which has done a much better job at conveying her unique voice.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Underrated Movie #147: Mickey One

Title: Mickey One
Year: 1965
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan M. Surgal
Stars: Warren Beatty, Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone, Kamatari Fujiwara

The Story: An ultra-cool Detroit nightclub comic finds himself on the wrong side of his club’s mobbed-up owner. Fleeing on the lam to the seedy side of Chicago, he imagines killers are hiding in every shadow… but he has a pathological urge to return to the stage...
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie has two big problems: it’s always divided audiences, and it’s always been hard to find. After wildly mixed early reviews, it was dumped as a drive-in movie, where audiences must have been truly baffled, since it was one of the first attempts to do a dryly-surreal American art-film. The movie has never been on video, and even when it shows up in revival theaters, it continues to attract as many detractors as fans. I happen to love it.
Why It’s Great:
  1. By 1965, there was a huge gap between the unapologetic artistry of European cinema and America’s widescreen technicolor blandness, but a few brave souls wanted to drag Hollywood into the modern age, and none moreso than Warren Beatty (of all people). He really wanted to hire Godard or Truffaut to come over the pond, but instead, he made do with ambitious American TV director Arthur Penn. This was their first attempt to import a new wave sensibility, and they succeeded onscreen, but not in theaters. Nevertheless the pair tried again two years later with Bonnie and Clyde and finally ignited an American Renaissance.
  2. American street-level noir and European high-minded existentialism have always been incestuously entertwined: Nobody believed Camus when he said that “The Stranger” was merely his attempt to imitate James M. Cain, but he wasn’t half wrong, and noir itself never would have taken hold without the infusion of émigrés fleeing Hitler. (even then, it took the French to recognize the genre and name it). Penn’s oddball intellectual noir delicately straddles the end of one era (noir) and the beginning of another (art cinema), not belonging to either but worthy of both.
  3. The offbeat sensibility and staccato rhythms make this movie the visual equivalent of jazz, and so it’s only fitting that it’s got a hopping jazz score by the great Stan Getz.
  4. Beatty always seemed miscast to me in movies like The Parallax View and Dick Tracy… Basically I think that he’s only really good at playing one thing: angry, half-witted loverboys whose charm masks a deeper angst. ...But whenever he got a role like that, he was amazing. After all, many or our greatest stars made a nice living for themselves by doing one thing well.
  5. This kafka-esque nightmare is actually a great metaphor for the bleak life of a stand-up comic, then and now, where the goal is to “kill” onstage before the audience can do the same to you. At least these days the mob no longer runs the nightclubs, so that’s less literal, though just as figurative.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another fun attempt to merge jazz sensibility and noir style was the short-lived 50s TV show “Johnny Staccato”, starring John Cassavetes as a bebop pianist who moonlights as a hardboiled detective. It’s now on DVD. Alice’s Restaurant is another great Penn movie and Funny Bones is another darkly comic look at stand-up.

How Available Is It?: After the floodgates broke open last week, there’s no stopping me now: This is another only-on-bit-torrent special. The print I found is good but a little small.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Crimson Clown!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #120: Reboots Must Re-Establish the Metaphor

Apes week concludes!
Relaunching a franchise has a lot of upsides:
  • You have old hardcore fans who are desperate to see more material, even though it might ignore previous stories.
  • You have semi-interested non-fans who recognize the name and will see this as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a phenomenon they originally missed out on.
  • Most importantly, you have years of stories to pick and choose from, allowing you to take the best elements and jettison everything that no longer works.
But it’s also a minefield. As I said yesterday, ever great genre story is a metaphor. It’s an extreme situation that’s a metaphor for a universal emotion. The reboot must either re-establish the original metaphor or re-shape the material into a whole new metaphor.
The worst way to do a reboot is to simply make a skewed twist on the original idea: that’s an abstraction of an abstraction. An example of this was Tim Burton’s horrible 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. They simply put the original movie in a blender and served it back to us in a weirder, wilder, and more twist-y format. “You thought the original movie’s ending was mind-blowing? Well, we’ve topped that: our ending is mind-boggling!”The right way to do it was shown by the new Apes reboot: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The bigotry metaphor of the original movie, as brilliant as it was, is totally discarded here, in favor of a rich new metaphor about generational displacement, the limits of science and different varieties of infantilization.And why not? The original movie was a masterpiece, so you’re not going to beat it at its own game. But the specter of an ape planet is still fear-inducing, so why not find a all-new use for that potent imagery? 

Another great example is the recent version of “Doctor Who” starring Matt Smith. This was a “soft reboot” in that it kept (but de-emphasized) the original continuity, but new showrunner Stephen Moffat nevertheless felt the need to create an all-new metaphor for the basic concept. What he arrived at was this: “What if your imaginary friend came back to take you on more adventures as an adult?” Like so: Smith (the youngest to play the role) is the spirit of imagination, come to rescue you from the doldrums of adulthood. This is an entirely new conception of the doctor, never before seen in 40 years of stories. It took Moffat’s genius to somehow find new meaning in such a well-worn concept, and it paid off handsomely: instead of merely re-energizing old fans, his version has found an entirely new generation of fans, who never thought they would like “Doctor Who”.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #119: Great Genre Stories Must Be Metaphors

Hey, where’d the apes go? They escaped from today’s post!
So I watched the “Alcatraz”: pilot and it’s…okay. Fun idea, some good actors (not counting the too-cute lead), zippy execution… but it doesn’t add up to anything. Whenever I find myself watching something like this and wondering why it’s not as interesting as it should be, I take a step back and ask myself, “Okay, what exactly is the metaphor here?”
“Alcatraz,” I suspect, will never work because it’s not really a metaphor for anything. Compare this to the previous J.J. Abrams Jorge Garcia show about an island, “Lost”, where the “island as redemption” metaphor was quickly established.
Now let me be the first to admit: not every fan feels this way about genre shows. Some just enjoy the genre trappings and they could care less what it all means. I was a big fan of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” but quickly lost interest in its spin-off “Angel”. “Buffy” created an extremely rich and flexible metaphor for high-school, coming-of-age, sex, betrayal, empowerment… and almost any other topic the creators wanted to cover, but “Angel” never found its metaphor...At first, it seemed like it might be a metaphor for addiction and recovery, which might have worked, but “Buffy” had already given Angel an epic relapse and redemption arc, which pretty must used up that material, leaving the spinoff with nowhere to go. Ultimately, “Angel” was about a vampire private detective fighting the minions of a vampire law-firm. Huh? What does that mean?
But many fans loved “Angel” anyway. The show had some fun horror plots and charming characters. Why nitpick it? The problem, to my mind, was the law of diminishing returns. Once “Angel” de-coupled itself from the rich vein of meaning that underlay “Buffy”, it could keep pleasing old fans, but it wasn’t likely to earn any new fans.
Fans don’t need a lot of metaphorical meaning in order to keep watching, but they do need it to fall in love in the first place. “Angel” was a perfectly-acceptable continuation of the “Buffy” universe, but it never found its own metaphor, so it could only be a moon reflecting the light of Buffy’s sun.

To work on its own, “Angel” would have had to start over from scratch with a new metaphor. We’ll get to how to do that tomorrow... (Can you guess which movie will be our example?)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #118: Limit Your Hero's Perspective

Apes Week Continues!I’ve said before that a hero can’t succeed by doing what anybody would do. But wait-- Don’t we want our heroes to be relatable, and their actions to be logical? Yes, but you can’t take that too far. A character who is too logical becomes generic.
Don’t just ladle on the over-motivation and close off alternate routes until your character is forced to do exactly what you want them to do. Instead, give them just the right amount of motivation, and then let them choose to go the extra step, based on their specific psychology and circumstances. The trick is to allow your hero to have reactions that are surprising but still understandable. 

If we understand how circumstances have limited the hero’s perspective, then it is possible to remain intensely sympathetic to them, even if we know that we would react differently.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it would have been easy to over-motivate Caesar the ape. He could have been expelled from his human home as a result of a false accusation, or an irrational prejudice, but no: he genuinely freaked out and acted overly violent. More importantly, once he’s in state custody, as bad as the conditions are (compared to the human life he used to live) it would have been easy to make his keepers more broadly villainous, instead of merely callous.
As I was watching it, I briefly misinterpreted what was happening. I thought that when the keepers showed Franco the nicely-furnished monkey playroom, and then put Caesar into his concrete cell, that this was a dastardly bait and switch. I was relieved when I realized that this wasn’t the case: Caesar did indeed get to spend a lot of time in the playroom, and Franco was in fact aware that Caesar would have to sleep in the cell at night.The decision not to overplay the villainy of the keepers is key, because it keeps the focus on the delicate Franco/Caesar relationship, rather than allowing an outside force to barge in and tip the balance.
Since Caesar’s banishment was his own fault, and Franco did everything in his power to stop it, and the keepers aren’t overly evil, then Caesar’s feeling of isolation and betrayal is all the more tragic and universal. Though he has a genius IQ, it doesn’t stop him from feeling a child’s illogical sense of betrayal when he discovers that the world is unfair and not everyone will treat him as well as his parental guardians did.We can see that Caesar’s sense of betrayal is unfounded, but we understand his limited perspective (and remember feeling the same way as children) so we intensely sympathize, far more than if Caesar had suffered a more exaggerated betrayal.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #117: Create Reversible Behaviors

Finally saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes and loved it! Let’s do a mini-unit of Apes rules...
In every scene, you must convey the hero’s internal state to the audience. In screenwriting, you have three ways of doing this: voiceover, dialogue or behavior:
  • The advantage of voiceover is that it allows the hero to honestly and directly tell us what’s going on. The disadvantages, however, are many: it’s inherently un-cinematic, in that it’s invisible, and it takes us out of the story by breaking the fourth wall.
  • Dialogue is also problematic: in real life, people don’t like to honestly tell other people what they’re thinking or feeling. Usually the other character has to trap the hero into revealing their thoughts.
  • The best way to detect the internal state of others, in movies and in real life, is through behavior. But behavior is very hard to write. Many readers, myself included, tend to breeze through scripts by reading only the dialogue, skipping over the prose paragraphs entirely, because they tend to be turgid and repetitive. Knowing this, writers are understandably loathe even to attempt to write actions that will speak louder than their words. But this is a mistake. Instead, in order to keep the reader from skipping the descriptions of behavior, every screenwriter must (against expectations) also be an excellent prose writer.
In order to convince the writer to read your prose (and get the movie’s future audience to invest in paying close attention to your characters’ actions) you need to create behaviors that, like good dialogue, are streamlined, deliberate, and packed with meaning.
Behavior, like dialogue, benefits from the old trick of ‘set up and pay-off.’ One advantage of this is that it allows you to create potential energy early on with the set-up, and then release that energy swiftly and efficiently when the pay-off hits. The audience loves to see this happen: Because they saw the set-up, they are in your secret club and know instantly what it means when they see the pay-off, even though a casual observer wouldn’t. 

You can do this with physical actions as well by creating reversible behaviors. Rather than come up with new behavioral clues from scratch in every scene to convey emotional states, you can give a character a behavior that means one thing, then later have the character reverse that behavior, letting the audience know instantly that the internal state has flipped as well. This is why it’s always good to look for behaviors that can do double-duty: meaning one thing now and the opposite later on.
Several great examples are on display in the wonderful recent blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When we first meet John Lithgow’s character, he’s attempting to play the piano but merely banging out dischordant notes, letting us know instantly that he’s losing his mind. When his son gives him an anti-alzheimer’s medication, he awakes the next morning to find his father playing the piano beautifully. We instantly understand what this means.(Interestingly, the writers later have an opportunity to flip this again, but they don’t use it. When the drug starts to wear off and Lithgow begins to lose his mind again, rather than put him at the piano a third time, the writers craft a heartbreaking moment where the two main characters silently notice that Lithgow is trying to chop up his eggs with the wrong end of his fork. Having used reversible behavior to good effect once, they decided to start fresh with a new behavior to indicate Lithgow’s gradual return to senility)We get another powerful example of reversible behavior when Caesar, the human-like ape, is kicked out of his human home and sent to live in a concrete cell. At home in his attic loft, Caesar looked out on the world through a distinctive window.In the cell, Caesar touchingly scratches a replica of the window onto his wall, showing that he wishes to return there. Later, once he realizes that he can never trust humans, he violently erases the drawing off the wall. The audience knows all too well what that means.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Underrated Movie #146: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Title: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Year: 1970
Director: Elio Petri
Writers: Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro
Stars: Gian Maria Volonte, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Orazio Orlanda

The Story: As Italy’s postwar government slowly devolves back towards becoming a police state, an unhinged chief of detectives decides to test the limits of his power by murdering his lover, then leaving a series of clues pointing towards his own guilt, desperately hoping to be caught, but knowing full well how unlikely that is.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a special case, it was not underrated at the time: in fact it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar…But, for some reason (which I’ve never been able to determine), it has never been available on video or disc in America. Until recent advances in piracy, it could be seen only at revival houses. Inevitably, it has been forgotten here, which is a shame, since it’s a masterpiece.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Also forgotten in this country is the great Gian Maria Volonte, though you’ve probably seen him more that you realize: as the bad guys in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and co-star of Melville’s heist epic The Red Circle, for instance. His coiled fury is utterly hypnotic, hiding a sublimated maelstrom of clashing emotions: guilt for his murder, hatred and lust for his dead mistress, anger at his colleagues, and utter despair at the state of the world.
  2. Volonte’s character has no confidant, so how do we know what he’s doing as he manipulates the system, much less what he’s thinking? Luckily his victim was a kinky murder-groupie and he used to explain the wickedness of the system to her during their assignations. Those flashbacks now echo through his head as a bizarre greek chorus, commenting and explaining on his actions. It’s a clever and entertaining conceit.
  3. Though no cop would admit it in court, they know all too well that most witnesses cannot accurately describe a face they’ve just seen. Volonte’s detective has had that working against him so long that he can’t resist using it to his advantage now, delighting in the act of prolonging eye contact with witnesses to his crime and cover-up, daring them to finally get it right for once, but knowing that the system only sees what it wants to see.
  4. This world isn’t so far away from ours: Steve Jobs refused to put license plates on his car, knowing that no cop in Cupertino dared ticket him, but all that power never made him happy. As terrible as it is to be in a situation where you know you’re being discriminated against, it’s also sickening in its own way to realize that you’re getting unfair advantages. This movie shows how you cannot have contempt for others without also having growing contempt for yourself.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another brilliant Italian movie from the same year, also about a kinky conscience-stricken fascist, was Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Rewatching this, I also saw connections to the recent German stunner The Lives of Others

How Available Is It?: I don’t usually feature movies that are only available on bit torrent, but I was dying to see this again so I made an exception. Since it doesn’t seem likely to ever be released here, you may have to take drastic measures. For what it’s worth, there are great prints floating around out there in the ether.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Anything For Kicks!

Quick Course Correction

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned that I was going to only count pages I wrote, not hours I worked when I wasn’t turning out pages, hoping that that would force me to write more pages: but I forgot that, for some reason, that never works. There are always going to be day when the pages don’t come, but I can still sit there and brainstorm, and when I stop giving myself credit for those hours, I spend too much time beating up on myself. So those of you playing along at home will note that I’ve changed the calender back to hours worked / pages written (lumping script and prose pages in together). Now back to the show.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Film School Confidential, Conclusion: Instead of Film School, Listen to the Crickets

Let me tell you a little fable that also happens to be a true story... The same week I started at Columbia, an old friend from college left New York to attend a different film school in another city. A month later, he came right back. He had taken one look around and realized that film school was a terrible idea.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I pitied him. On the one hand, here was I: Whenever anyone asked me what I was doing with my life, I got to say “I’m getting a masters from Columbia University.” Everybody was very impressed. Nobody responded, “Gee what a waste”. Nobody said, “Holy hell, man, how are you ever going to pay that off??” Getting a Columbia degree is a “very worthwhile thing to do.”

My friend, meanwhile, had to admit to people at parties that he was a film school dropout, working as a temp and performing with improv troupes around town. I went to a lot of his shows and let me tell you something about improv: it’s painful. The troupe would do a skit and you would hear crickets. Not one real laugh. I felt terrible: Here I was, being told by famous filmmakers at an Ivy League school that my work was great. And here this guy was, begging for laughs in a basement in Brooklyn.

It wasn’t until I graduated and that I finally asked, “What do I have to show for all those years and all that money?” The truth was that I had experienced the exact same realization as my friend had, two weeks into my own film school experience. That was how long it took me to realize that Columbia had a terrible film program. I should have left, right there and then, but I didn’t, because I couldn’t face the shame.

I wanted to sound impressive at parties. I wanted lots of praise from professors. I wanted these things so badly that I was willing to spend $150k to get them. (Really far more than that. It will probably balloon to $300k by the time I finally get it paid off.)

After graduation, the truth came crashing down: the professors that I thought were my good friends stopped returning my calls, now that I was no longer paying them to like me. Then I found out that no one in the business was impressed by a Columbia degree. Worst of all, my new manager started sending out my Columbia-award-winning scripts and guess what I heard?


Suddenly, I noticed something about my friend that I had never realized before: All that time, he could hear the crickets too. Unlike me, he knew that his work wasn’t connecting to paying audiences. And it hurt. And so he had slowly gotten better.

Let’s cut to the chase: A few months ago, he got a call at his temp job, and then he promptly quit. He’s now a staff writer at “The Daily Show”. Every writer on staff gets an Emmy every year. Now he has no problem telling people at parties what he does.

As for me, I started this blog, re-educated myself, wrote a bunch of new scripts and now I’ve making some money, though I’m still a long way away from paying off those loans. But most graduates of Columbia tragically never even secure representation, much less make a sale.

Now I know what I was really buying with that $150,000: I was paying the crickets to stay away. I was insulating myself from any real criticism. I was paying people to like me. In short: I was paying to be coddled. And all that money and all that coddling made me a worse writer.

Film school teaches you how to please your professors, please your fellow students, and, most of all, please yourself. It doesn’t teach you how to please a paying audience. In fact, at my school, if you even said that you wanted to please a paying audience, the professors would tell you that you were making a terrible mistake.

The only reliable way to get better is to put your work before paying audiences and learn to please them through trial and error. Everyday you do that, you will get better. Otherwise, it will be almost impossible. If you go to film school, that’s four years of not getting better, for which you get a lifetime of debt.

The moral of this little fable? DO NOT GO TO FILM SCHOOL. Find yourself a basement theater, or a small newspaper, or an open mic night. Listen to the crickets. Learn to please unfriendly audiences. Slowly, painfully, get better.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 4: You're The Whale

Don’t worry, folks, there’s only five parts, and I am going somewhere with this...

There’s a great scene in Casino that reveals the secret of Las Vegas’s success: The Whale. The Whale is the rich guy who loves to gamble, and comes to town ready to spend. Once a whale arrives, the entire casino is re-engineered to become one big happiness machine, centered around him: free rooms, free hookers, free anything. And if the whale attempts to leave while he’s ahead, they disable his plane, forcing him to spend one more night on the tables.

Everyone going to film school should watch this scene, and not just to learn about filmmaking. When you go to an expensive film school, you are the whale. Everything they do is designed to keep money shooting out of your spout. Even if that means sabotaging your education.

It doesn’t have to be this way: After I got out of college, I delivered pizzas, made movies on mini-DV and took occasional film classes at a place called Minneapolis Community and Technical College. MCTC charged $400 a semester, which I paid out of pocket using my pizza tips. To my surprise, the quality of the program was excellent. The facilities and equipment were top notch. The faculty was smart, intense and dedicated. The main professor, Bruce Mamer, actually wrote one of the directing textbooks that was used at NYU. He was also brutally honest with his dirt-poor students about the economic realities of filmmaking, which we appreciated.
As part of that program, I made a short film that got me some attention. I decided to use that film to apply to a “real” film school. But when I got to Columbia, I was in for a shock. I was now paying twenty times as much, but the equipment was shoddy and rarely available, the classrooms were rotting, and the professors (with a few notable exceptions) were surly, distracted and ill-prepared. On that last point, we soon found out why: our professors were really “adjuncts” who got paid $4000 a semester. If they spent any time preparing, then they’d be making less than minimum wage.

So where was our $100k in tuition going? Columbia, it turned out, had gotten addicted to buying up property in Manhattan, even though the real estate bubble had inflated prices into the stratosphere, so educational budgets had all been slashed to the bone. MCTC was a government-subsidized institution, but Columbia’s only source of money was us. And they intended to milk us for all we were worth.
But what could I do? I tried not to get upset with the people running the film program: they couldn’t help it that the university was taking our tuition and literally putting it down a hole. They had to make the best of a bad situation and try to get by on the cheap, right?
But even so, that left one thing I still couldn’t forgive them for: the program had no standards. And standards are free.

There was no curriculum. There were no grades. There were no tests. There were no criteria that we were supposed to meet. Simply put, they expected nothing of us. They cheered our output, they handed out prizes, and they told us we would soon be on easy street. Why did they have no standards? Simple: that would have interrupted the happiness machine, and that might have upset the Whales. The longer they kept us happy, the more money we spent.

Of course, if they were loaning us the money themselves, then it would all be different. They would have done everything in their power to harden us into a great filmmakers who could go out there and earn enough to pay them back. But they get paid upfront, so they could care less if their students ever get a career, or even any career skills.

Okay, things look bleak for the struggling filmmakers of the world. Is there any hope? Yes there is. Tomorrow, let’s talk about what to do instead...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 3: It Feeds Your Worst Instincts

If I had to summarize the message of film school in two words, it would be these: “Never Compromise.” Occasionally, they would bring in indie filmmakers to show their latest films. This was during a period when the audience for indie films was plummeting, and these filmmakers should have been adapting, but instead they were determined to go down with the Titanic.

Time after time, students would stand and say, “Your movie is so uncompromising! How do you resist the pressure to give in to notes?” And the filmmaker would tell them to be strong and always remember: “Never compromise!” As I pointed out before, this is terrible advice.

Here’s a typically painful example. I was a big fan of Slums of Beverly Hills and its director, Tamara Jenkins, so I was excited when she brought her long-awaited follow-up, The Savages. This was a movie about a brother and sister who have to take care of their indigent, unloving dad in his final days. They get more and more annoyed with him, and they they realize more and more that he’s really messed them up, and then finally… they get a call from the nursing home that dad’s dead. End of movie.

As the lights went up, I thought. “Gee, that was almost great, but it had no ending. The kids never confront their dad!” Sure enough, in the Q and A, Jenkins said that most studios and even most indie producers begged her to add a scene where the kids have it out with their dad. Even the production house that actually made the movie told her that they would give her twice the budget if she added such a scene. But no! She stuck to her guns! And let that be a lesson to us! Never compromise! (aka “Never fix your movie”)

Now obviously, the school can’t be blamed for the words of one visiting director, but this was a very typical example of what classes were like as well.

As with any art school, most of the professors were somewhat disappointed about their own artistic careers, but rather than say, “Oh well, maybe I should have been more of a team player,” they took the opposite message. They concluded that: “I was denied by a system that demanded that I compromise. Now that I’m teaching film school, I can create a utopian new generation that will end the era of compromise once and for all!”

Obviously, this is crazy. But why didn’t the school feel any responsibility to teach us the skills we would need to make careers for ourselves? Because of the incentive structure behind these programs, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Monday, January 16, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 2: It’s Worse than Nothing

Doctors frame their degrees and put them on their office walls. They want you to know where they went to school, because then you’ll assume that they know what they’re doing. Same thing with academics. They know that every time they publish their research, the reader is going to flip to the end and check out their credentials first.
But with fiction writers, it’s just the opposite. The last thing you want to do is brag about where you went to school. Writers are selling their authenticity, and a writing degree is the opposite of authenticity. Producers would much rather hear about your time in prison, or on a shrimp boat, or in the army. Anything but graduate school.
When was the last time you saw a movie poster like the one above? If you did, would that make you more likely to go? This brings us to the real truth: Not only does an MFA degree not help your career, it actually hurts your career. Producers don’t trust film schools. And with good reason.

When a producer sees that you’ve gone to film school, here’s what they think: “Uh oh. This guy’s just paid a hundred thousand dollars to be coddled for four years. He’s been told that his shit doesn’t stink because that’s what he wanted to hear, and he foolishly believed it all.” 

Even worse: They know that you’ve spent four years in a hermetically-sealed environment. You haven’t been listening to how real people actually talk. Just the opposite: you’ve been listening to other students’ fumbling attempts to write dialogue all that time. Film school is a bad dialogue echo-chamber, and nobody comes out unscathed.
So who would they rather hire? The top job in the screenwriting world is that of TV showrunner, and most showrunners started out in one of three professions: they were journalists, playwrights, or stand-up comedians. If you want to become a screenwriter, then you should be pursuing one of those three professions first, not going to film school.
What do these professions have in common? Three things:
  1. You submit your material to a paying audience on a daily basis.
  2. There’s low overhead, so you can pay your dues for years without going into debt.
  3. You have to LISTEN to a lot of people.
Playwrights and stand-up comics have to listen to live audiences, and constantly revise to entertain them more. Journalists have to listen to the people they’re reporting on, transcribe every word they say, and then boil that down to a few quotable lines that convey what’s unique and interesting about this person. Film school, on the other hand, specifically encourages you not to listen to others, which we’ll get to tomorrow…

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film School Confidential, Part 1: A Confession

This blog is basically one big fraud. The day I put up my first post, I had that freak-out that all bloggers have: “Why should anyone listen to me? What authority do I have to talk about anything?” And so I gave in to my moment of weakness and put a bio in the sidebar that assured my readers that I have an MFA in Screenwriting from a hoity-toity university. And I never took it down. It’s still there today.

And so, on more than one occasion, fans of the blog have said to me, “I feel like reading your blog gives me all the benefits of a Columbia education!”

[record scratch sound] Um, no.

Of the 102 rules I’ve covered on this blog, I can think of maybe two that I was taught at Columbia. Almost every other rule is the exact opposite of what they teach there. In fact, anyone trying to teach these rules there would be fired.

It’s time to admit the real reason I started this blog: because I suddenly realized that almost everything I learned at film school was dead wrong, which is why far too many of my fellow graduates have careers that are dead dead. This blog is my attempt to unlearn almost everything they taught us, and forcibly re-educate myself from scratch by re-examining the movies that made me want to make movies.

My school was run like a summer camp, rather than a professional program. We were encouraged to dabble in everything and specialize in nothing, to follow our muse wherever it led us, content in the knowledge that we were in a “safe space”, free from serious criticism. The following concepts were verboten in most of my classes:

  • Compelling Characters
  • Universal Structure
  • Emotion
  • Sympathy
  • Selling a Screenplay
  • And the most verboten concept of all: Pleasing an Audience

Instead, we were supposed to talk about:

  • Executing Our Own Perfect Vision
  • Big Ideas
  • Self-Awareness
  • Post-Modernism
  • Awkwardness
  • Ennui

Yeah, sure, okay, you say. Art school is arty. That’s no surprise. But at least it helps your career, right? We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Underrated Movie #145: Every Little Step

Title: Every Little Step
Year: 2008
Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
Stars: Bob Avian, Marvin Hamlisch, Baayork Lee, Jay Binder

The Story: A fascinating and suspenseful documentary about the casting process for the 2005 revival of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway that, like the musical, quickly becomes about so much more: the economy, the American Dream, the creative life, and the existential dilemmas that everyone has to face.

How it Came to be Underrated: This had a brief run here in New York where it was popular with Broadway fans, but it hasn’t yet pulled off the crossover appeal of the original show, reaching a broader audience who will discover that there’s more here than meets the eye. This is one of the best documentaries of the last ten years and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. When the movie begins, our sympathy is totally with the actors, and we take offense at the indignity of the whole process. But then, as so often happens in stories, our sympathies begin to creep upward towards the bosses. The turning point comes when the casting directors have to listen to thirty different Maggies blow the high note on “At the Ballet.” Suddenly, all you care about is their suffering. In the end, despite the fact that they started with 3000 wildly talented hopefuls for 20 parts, you actually begin to worry that the casting directors won’t find anybody good enough.
  2. One thing that makes the process especially tough for both sides is that these characters all describe their own body type, so even more than usual, the actors have a fatalistic sense that they’ll be judged more on “look” than acting ability. But then we get to the most amazing moment in the movie: An unassuming Asian guy named Jason Tam gets up to read for a white role and he goes so deep into the monologue that he begins to weep, and then everybody watching this movie begins to weep, and then even the casting directors, who have been listening to this same monologue over and over all damn day (and for the last 30 years), begin to weep! Suddenly, nobody could care less that he doesn’t have the right look. That’s an audition.
  3. The editing is breathtaking. It’s the ultimate post-modern nesting doll of a movie, with six overlaid parallel stories: the original, desperate life stories of a group of dancers, the versions of their stories that they put on tape one night in 1975, the original Broadway musical they created from those tapes, the revival being mounting in 2005, and the real stories we’re seeing onscreen of all the dancers trying out to star in that revival. And yet all of these are the same story: we see our auditioners tell the camera how badly they need this show, then we see them audition by singing songs about how badly they need the show within the show…
  4. …It could have been a navel-gazing mess, but it works for the same reason that “A Chorus Line” works, because none of this is really about dance. It’s about the most universal dilemma or all: individuality vs. solidarity. As Frank Rich points out in the special features, the existential power of the show comes from the fact that none of these characters is even trying out for a once-of-a-lifetime role that’s going to make them a star: their goal is to be allowed to melt into an anonymous, homogenous, background chorus line. But in order to earn the right to melt away, they need to prove that they’ve become the most extraordinary individual they can be.
  5. The ending was a little anti-climactic for Betsy and me, because we had seen the amazing revival on Broadway so we already knew who was going to get each role, but that also added another level of poignancy because we knew that, despite glowing reviews and strong sales for the first year, the show had already closed by the time the movie opened.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another recent documentary in the same vein was Stage Door, about a camp for theater kids, which has one of the most heartbreaking endings of any doc I’ve seen. Another great doc from around this time about a competition with larger metaphorical meaning was Spellbound.

How Available Is It?: But wait, we still have one more meta-layer: the DVD commentary, which is fun, as are the deleted scenes and various interviews.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Reflecting --And How!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #116: Listen to Despicable People

We live in the golden age of information. It used to be that if you wanted to collect great, real dialogue, you had to leave your house. Now there’s a reality TV show about every profession, some of which actually are unscripted, and if that doesn’t get you what you need, there’s all those eavesdropping twitter feeds. My new addiction is “Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip

This one is especially useful because despicable dialogue is some of the hardest dialogue to write without resorting to clichés. Most of us do everything in our power to make sure that we never have to listen to evil people, but almost every story contains at least one evil character, so writers have to know how they actually talk. Sometimes such people actually get caught on tape, as with the late night energy traders in the above clip, but this twitter feed is the next best thing:
  • “Living my life is like playing ‘Call of Duty’ on Easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.”
  • “A new year. Time for a new slampiece.”
  • “Seriously… that idiot hedging an oddlot position with futures is like a fat chick buying a rape whistle.”
  • And one from the ladies: “I love it when a guy hits on me & then gives me a business card with a gmail account. Asshole, I work at Goldman Sachs.”
It’s even harder to write racism believably. Having a character say “I don’t happen to like Jews” is as dubious as it is boring. Here’s a much better version, that I’ll paraphrase from an actual email I ran across: “My father was never anti-Semitic a day in his life. And that’s especially impressive because the Jews were horrible to him.”

Nine times out of ten, racism is not a conscious attitude, it’s a set of unconscious assumptions. People reveal it most when they try to say something magnanimous. Every time I eat at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, I remember Bill O’Reilly’s infamous praise for it: “And I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks […] There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘Motherfucker, I want more iced tea.’” Okee-dokee then.

A previous rule was Let Them Hang Themselves. There are two great ways to do that: let them try to be funny or let them try to be nice.