This morning I went to a cafe to work on the script. The directing part of the script. I read through my old notes on Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, an excellent book on directing. The main thesis of the book is that every movie has a theme, a central principle, truth, or message.
That theme guides all other choices. Once you have that theme, it’s easier to make your decisions and answer questions.
I spent about three hours thinking through the theme and how I want the camera to move and what do to with framing, the key moments of the film, the tone, and the rhythm. The rhythm is so important to me and I’ve learned from experience not to leave this to the editing room because there’s only so much you can do with cutting.
The movie is dialogue-heavy so it needs to feel in motion and to move forward at all times, so as not to get stuck in the single location.
And I leafed through my dog-eared copy of Werner Herzog’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I love dearly.
When he’s not talking about being shot in the stomach or bamboozling border agents, he says things like:
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself.
Guess that one stuck.
This should be a lesson to filmmakers today with inexpensive digital technology at their disposal. You need only a good story and guts to make a film, the sense that it absolutely has to be made.
I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment.
And of course because why not
I tried things out with various pigs during pre-production, but none of them became altitude sick.
Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.
We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.
That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1
We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.
A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.
And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…
But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.
Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.
We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?
OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:
Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me
This was my favorite title:
I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.
Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.
Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.
After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).
We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. ↩
Lets say that if one loves cinema as an escape mechanism, well, one escapes ten times more in a Hitchcock film because it’s better narrated. He tells modern stories, stories of ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. Don’t forget that I grew up in fear and that Hitchcock is the filmmaker of fear. You enter into his films as into a dream of great beauty of form, so harmonious, so natural… I admired Hitchcock very early and I got into the habit of seeing his films many times, and later, when I made films, I came to realize that, when I had difficulties in directing, it was by thinking of Hitchcock that I could find solutions.
— Francois Truffaut (from Truffaut by Truffaut).
Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!
What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.
I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.
The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.
I found this line in Michel Houllebecq’s Submission:
I started to wonder what I was doing there. This very basic question can occur to anyone, anywhere, at any moment in his life, but there’s no denying that the solitary traveler is especially vulnerable.
It reminded me of:
At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.
I finished Submission last night and it’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. It’s not at all what I expected it to be and apart from being superbly written, it’s left me with a lot of questions.
Some of the things I’ve been reading while at home over the break:
- Cal Newport has a new book that I can’t wait to read.
- Amazon launched a cloud-based screenwriting app. I would never trust stuff to just live in one place–I need to have redundancy in backup (hard drive + cloud) but I might look at submitting some scripts to Amazon Studios.
- “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”
Episode 16 of Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast, titled “The Secret Formula” has a really interesting discussion about how Gimlet (and presumably This American Life and other highly-produced podcasts and radio shows) put together their shows.
The process is a lot like film editing, without the visual element of course. The episode basically turns out to be a how-to on how to edit a radio story and it’s comforting to know that it’s not an easy process. They start with a very rough cut, go through it and figure out where it “drifts,” and then making subsequent re-edits to improve the story until it’s working and interesting throughout.
It’s also comforting to know that this is more or less the approach I take when I edit video — whenever I get feedback (or give myself feedback), I look for the places in a script or the video where the action stalls. I really like the term drift though, because it’s more descriptive of the audience’s experience. Stalling is about the work, drifting is about the audience.
And they go into one technique that they use to keep people interested and moving forward, especially before a commercial break. They call it a “promote forward.”
The use of the term “forward” struck me because I just read a book called “Backward and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays” by David Ball. The book is fascinating on a lot of levels. As a reader, I learned that my understanding of Hamlet as a brooding man of inaction is entirely wrong and that he doesn’t actually contemplate suicide, he only feigns to be depressed and crazy in order to convince Polonius et al. that he is.
I don’t know if there’s a “right” interpretation, but I had never thought of that one.
The book is intended for theater creators, mainly directors, but it also serves as a technical guidebook for play-writing or screenwriting without falling prey to the “paint by numbers” approach of most of the dreck written about screenwriting.
One of the theses of the book is that a good play (or dramatic writing of any form) uses forwards throughout to keep the reader moving. Ball summarizes it:
A forward is any of a myriad of devices, techniques, tricks, maneuvers, manipulations, appetizers, tantalizers, teasers, that make an audience eager for what’s coming up. If you miss a script’s forwards, you miss the playwright’s most distinctive, gripping tool. What stripper does not know that the promise of nudity more excites an audience than does nudity itself?
Effective dramatic writing hinges on the ability to keep the audience wanting to know what happens next. Forwards eliminate drift. Suspense isn’t relegated to certain genres; it’s everywhere.
Canseco has been described as a charmer and a clown, but in fact he is a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rogues are rare, inside baseball and out. It’s not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue–break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat–you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders, throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything’s a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn
We have no style, you and I; only people who don’t give a damn have style.
– “On Canseco” from Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Really enjoyed this book. And Canseco would’ve made a good Godard character.
You should never just read for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior; or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.