The Party (2017)

I watched The Party tonight. No, not the Peter Sellers one, although I love that movie, but a different one made in 2017.

A single-location stageplay film, like the one I’m directing later this month. I really enjoyed this. Good rhythm and loved the use of the wide-angle lenses, makes for really interesting depth of shots and brings you close to the characters.

And it made me feel a lot better about shooting in a single location — this film takes places in a single house and most of the action is in the living room. My film has the same basic parameters but it’s actually spread around the house more. Yes, I guess it can feel claustrophobic, but at 72 minutes or so, it wasn’t an issue.

The worst sin a filmmaker can make

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 Perplexedwhich 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.

And

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.

Instead of planning your career…

I’m reading through Pmarca’s guide to career planning on this lazy Sunday back home. Excellent throughout and way too much to quote, but some bits that ring especially clear:

The second rule of career planning: Instead of planning your career, focus on developing skills and pursuing opportunities.

I’ll talk a lot about skills development in the next post. But for the rest of this post, I’m going to focus in on the nature of opportunities.

Opportunities are key. I would argue that opportunities fall loosely into two buckets: those that present themselves to you, and those that you go out and create. Both will be hugely important to your career.

Opportunities that present themselves to you are the consequence — at least partially — of being in the right place at the right time. They tend to present themselves when you’re not expecting it — and often when you are engaged in other activities that would seem to preclude you from pursuing them. And they come and go quickly — if you don’t jump all over an opportunity, someone else generally will and it will vanish.

I believe a huge part of what people would like to refer to as “career planning” is being continuously alert to opportunities that present themselves to you spontaneously, when you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

And..

Optimize at all times for being in the most dynamic and exciting pond you can find. That is where the great opportunities can be found.

And…

Colin Powell says, “You know you’re a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity.”

Visual Inspiration (swimming pools by Maria Svarbova)

I love these photos.

Check out her Instagram too.

Via Kottke.

Assorted links

I’m cleaning out Evernote on this Labor Day and posting some stuff. I basically use this blog as an archive of the things that I’ve read or found that I want to remember later. So if it helps you, then bang on, as my English friend says.

John Cleese: how to write the perfect farce.  File under “steal old stuff.”

Accidental Wes Anderson. People on Reddit post photos of real places that look like sets or frames from Wes Anderson movies.

Advice on how to play a gig by Thelonius Monk.

Screenwriters: How Not to Get an Agent. Quotes excerpted from a great interview with an agent by John and Craig on an episode of Scriptnotes. This one really opened my eyes about the (lack of) value of 99% of screenwriting contests. Most of them are a way to make money for someone that can’t help you. Some of them have intangible benefits that might help you improve your writing but won’t help you get representation or sell a script.

How to Become Insanely Well-Connected. Good article on networking with practical and non-sleazy advice.

 

Physical comedy is hard

I was going through my Evernote to catch up on stuff I’ve saved but haven’t had time to digest and this Tony Zhou video came up. I realized that I already posted it but it’s worth posting (and watching) again, as are all of his video essays.

Having just directed a short film that relies mostly on physical comedy, and certainly using (or trying to use) it in The Deadline, I’ve really developed a profound appreciation for Keaton and the filmmakers he collaborated with. It’s insanely hard to pull of physical gags and requires a lot of good camera technique as well as performer technique. And rehearsal. And props. And special stages in Keaton’s case.

For the last short, I have people bumping heads on the sidewalk to pass out. Choreographing that was not easy, although it wasn’t impossible either. I’m still not 100% sure how it will turn out, but it looks good so far, at least in the long takes. I really didn’t want to use cheap tricks to get people to fall on the ground (hard pavement in this case), like cutting from the head bumps to the bodies on the ground. So we had to devise special padding that blends in with the sidewalk for the actors to fall on, which required the ingenuity of Jim Jarosz of Channel Awesome.

This was the third short I’ve directed and I would say 70% of my stress was around the physical humor — would it play well, would it look silly (in a not funny way), would anyone get hurt. 15% of my stress was the weather because we were outside and at the mercy of the rain, which fortunately the film Gods smiled upon us. The other 15% was the usual ever-present suspicion that everything would fall apart at any moment.

 

Self-doubt vs. self-criticism

When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.

— Jerry Saltz in My Life As a Failed Artist

I think there’s a real dearth of “literature” about failed artists. One doesn’t have to look hard to find successful actors, artists, filmmakers, comedians, etc., talking about how they achieved success, often with an emphasis on the follow-your-dreams-and-never-give-up words of inspiration. I wish those talks were more clear about the specific mechanics of not giving up, in terms of what strategies the artists used to adjust to adversity and creatively overcome it.

Saltz had a very common experience — the self-doubt of an artist. But he wasn’t equipped with the tools or understanding to move forward with his work. And I think that’s what bothers me about the just-believe-in-yourself thinking. It’s unrealistic. Even wildly successful artists are plagued by self-doubt. The doubt doesn’t really have anything to do with the work — it’s just a feeling, not an output.

And it might even be harmful to completely believe in yourself. People who want very badly to be very good at something but feel like they are far away from being very good at that thing tend to work hard to get better so they can get closer to being very good.

The supremely confident person who isn’t already very good has no pathway to getting better except for dumb luck. Why try to improve when you already believe that you’re great?

I think the self-doubt, when channeled properly into improving oneself, is precisely what allows people to succeed if they have the right tools for managing that self-doubt and can channel it into improving their work and growing, rather than letting it cripple them or driving them to drink. Maybe if Saltz had someone in his life that could have talked him through this at the time and helped him focus his energy in the right place, he might have found a way to get through the dip and break through.

I try to frame it to myself as “given that I work really hard for a long time and challenge myself in ways that will lead to creative growth and improvement in my craft, I believe that I will get better and eventually create something that other people really want to watch.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it’s important to think through these things and figure out under what conditions a platitude might be true and under what conditions it might lead to the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Another thing I like about this article by Saltz is that we can also see that failure at one thing, while it can be crushing psychologically, is not the end. You can take what you learned as an artist and use it to become a good critic (I’m assuming he’s good, I have no way of knowing whether or not he is or not). There are probably a dozen other careers he could have transitioned to where his art background would have helped on some level.

I think we should be honest and admit that yes, dreams do fail, and not everyone is going to be a successful artist, no matter how much they believe that they will be. Some will fail for a lack of talent, some for a lack of willpower or hard work, and some because of the dumb fucking luck.

It’s important to talk about what happens when you fail and how to decide when it’s time to move on or when the failure is just one bump in a long road to success.

Burglars

There’s something in the kitchen, you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear something stirring, in your kitchen you see five burglars, uninvited guests, how they got in you don’t know, through the window, through the door, through the basement you don’t know. One of them comes swinging wildly at you, so you better deal with that one first.

— Herzog on writing, from his Masterclass

Connect more, collect less

I read this on Seth Godin’s blog a couple years ago:

Without a doubt, the ability to connect the dots is rare, prized and valuable. Connecting dots, solving the problem that hasn’t been solved before, seeing the pattern before it is made obvious, is more essential than ever before.

Why then, do we spend so much time collecting dots instead? More facts, more tests, more need for data, even when we have no clue (and no practice) in doing anything with it.

Their big bag of dots isn’t worth nearly as much as your handful of insight, is it?

When I first thought about it, I was thinking about it in terms of analytics and what I do for my day job. But the more I think about it, the more it relates to my film work as well. Writing creatively is about collecting a lot of dots and then connecting them in creative ways.

Sometimes the dots are characters, storylines, forms, angles, shots, etc. Or they can be ideas, themes, concepts. A few times I’ve had an idea for a script rattling around in my head for months or even years and it’s just not enough for a full screenplay — it’s just a dot. And then I’ll watch a movie or see a play or read a book and get another dot that fits perfectly with the first dot.

Sometimes it’s a concept that needs a character, or a theme that needs a story, or it can be a combination of many things. And I’ll consume some other work of art or entertainment and I’ll get a new idea and it just clicks.

Joe Swanberg’s Keynote at SXSW on his indie film career and financing his films

I enjoyed this one just as much as the one with Mark Duplass. I really love Joe’s films and while I don’t necessarily work in his style or want to make similar films, I’ve learned a lot from his DIY career approach and the way that he’s making a living as  a filmmaker without giving up creative control.





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