Wisconsin bird magic

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).

 


  1. We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. 

Breakfast, Windshield Wipers, Kinko’s

Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).

Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.

The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?

These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.

After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.

I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.

The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.

The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.

 

 

 

Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.

I love road trips.


  1. What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. 

Paxton, IL

Drove down to Paxton, IL today to see about a house to make a movie in.

There’s a real joy to this part of making a movie, getting out and meeting people that welcome you into their home and are excited about helping you and then taking for hours about how the house isn’t perfect but it will work and now we can relax because of the 3 possible disasters that might derail this thing, one at least has a workable situation and if it all works out then we get to spend 2 weeks in a quaint town with good summer air with good people and the chance at at a transcendent shared experience.

And then we found this burger joint across the train tracks with a menu that I thought was a joke but it was real and the burgers were $1.20 and fries were 80 cents.

And sometimes I hate how flat IL is but then I think of that DFW line that goes:

Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Which is a very good line, to my ears at least, and I don’t know where I’m going with this except that there’s a real joy in doing things that are overwhelmingly difficult and it brings out emotions and fears and pleasures that I never knew I had, like when you do a new exercise and you get sore in muscles that you never noticed before.

Good night and look up Just Hamburgers if you’re ever in Paxton.

When and why screenplay format matters

I don’t believe there are “rules” to formatting a screenplay. But there are some generally accepted guidelines. They’re easy to learn and don’t require reading a book.1

Recently I got an email from a student in a film program here in Chicago, inviting me to audition for his graduate thesis project, a feature film. I told him that I was interested but asked him to send me the script or an excerpt so I could prepare for the audition.

The script was in a PDF file (which, nothing wrong with that) but it had obviously been written in Microsoft Word. The margins were all wrong — the dialogue lines stretched far across the page, instead of falling into narrow columns near the center of the page.

That’s a red flag for two reasons: one, it shows that the producer doesn’t know (or care) about formatting it according to accepted standards. That matters not because I’m fanatical about formatting but because it makes me wonder what else the producer doesn’t care about.

If they can’t do something basic like this the right way, then what else are they going to be unprofessional about? Are they going to run a good rehearsal? Are they going to feed me on set? Will they respect my time? Will they pay me on time? Will the film be any good? Or is their attitude “whatever, it doesn’t matter.” If it’s a half-day shoot then it doesn’t matter so much, but it matters a lot when you’re asking someone for a 2-week commitment as a lead in a film.

The other reason is that the producer told me that the full script was 70 pages. But that’s 70 pages with the Microsoft Word formatting — with screenplay formatting, all those lines of dialogue are going to take up a lot more room. So the 70-page script might actually be 90 pages.

Now, maybe he’s used to working this way? Maybe his collaborators are? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out on set that the 70-minute feature is actually a 140-minute feature and oh by the way we are already way behind schedule.

I’m really not so pedantic about formatting. You can make a screenplay with pictures and poems and spaces for improvisation and basically whatever you want. I think it would be cool to see more creativity in how screenplays are written. But if you’re going to do that, I think you should explain that you’re working differently and why. It’s not like the conventions are hard to follow.

OK rant over! Just use one of the free screenwriting programs. The damn formatting will be taken care of for you:


  1. This page has a good diagram that explains the basic formatting: https://online.pointpark.edu/screenwriting/screenplay-format/ 

Akimbo

I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast. It’s great, as usual.

Related to filmmaking & writing, I especially enjoyed The Grand Opening and No Such Thing (as writer’s block).

$10k Short Film Budget Template

I put together a template for a short film with a budget of $10k. It assumes two days of shooting, which would be anywhere from six to twenty pages, depending on how fast you can move and how many setups you have.

The columns update automatically as you adjust crew rates and how many days they are needed.

The numbers are not meant to be exact — a lot of it depends on what your production needs are, how many days you shoot, and how many favors you can call in. It’s definitely possible to make a short film for less than $10k. You can do it for under $100 actually, but if you’re doing that, then you don’t need a spreadsheet to keep track of the budget.

And knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t make a $10k short film. There’s no market for short films and I would rather put that money towards a feature film. If you’re going to raise $10k, why not raise $25k? If I’m going to do a short now, it’s going to be in the $500 – $3,000 range.

Click here to open the budget spreadsheet. To edit it, you have to save a copy to your own Google Drive.

Actor reels, web series, and casting

I started some preliminary casting this week for the feature I’m putting together.

Which has led me to watch a lot of actor reels.

My thought is that actors don’t put enough thought into how they are presenting themselves online.

A lot of the reels have some bad clips in them. By bad I mean that they don’t show the actor acting well. And/or they have clips with very low production design, audio hum, poor lighting, etc.

I know that actors usually don’t have control over the final product and the production value, so I don’t hold this against them. I know they have to build up their chops and get in reps and take student films and gigs for practice and experience.

But you do have a choice in what you put into your reel and what you post on your website. Quality is much more important than quantity.

A better option, if possible, would be to show a single short film that you made, which really shows off your ability. I know, that’s hard, and if you aren’t going to produce it yourself then you have to wait until you get cast in something like that.

I really like the Cinema Lab shorts by Stephen Cone. The actors are all from a class he taught. It helps that he’s a great director, but these shorts really show off the actors in the best possible way.

I think I’d rather see no reel than a poor reel. With just photos and a resume, I can imagine what might be. When I see a weak reel, I’m forced to consider that maybe this is as good as it gets.

I’ve also seen some bad web series this week. There are a lot of reasons to make a web series, but if you’re an actor and you are making one to show off your talent — then you should really make sure that it shows off your talent.

If you’re an actor and you wrote and starred in the series, I’m going to assume that you made it to show off your talent. And if it looks bad, the writing is bad, or the acting is bad — then…

We’re all trying to get better and of course the first things we make are rarely the best. That’s certainly the case for me. But you have a choice in what you put forward and what you leave out.

What’s the most indirect, intriguing way to present it?

For the past few years I have been influenced by Lubitsch, whose very special twist of mind fascinates me, the more so since he has been gradually forgotten after having exerted an enormous influence at the time… This consists in arriving at things roundabout, in asking oneself: “Given that you have a particular situation to get across to the public, what will be the most indirect, most intriguing way of presenting it?

Francois Truffaut (from Truffaut by Truffaut)

It was by thinking of Hitchcock that I could find solutions

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).

Off Book wins Best Short at Beloit International Film Festival

OK, technically we won for best Illinois short. They had a category for films made in Illinois or Wisconsin. Really nice folks up there.