I’ve been editing the first episode of my web series, Words Fail Me. The actors have a set of circumstances that they know in advance but all of the dialogue is improvised. It’s the first improvised video I’ve had to edit and it’s taken me a while to figure out a workflow that makes sense and isn’t insanely time-consuming.
I should say that this is the first time I’ve done this and that I’m still very new to editing in general, so your mileage may vary. But I’m putting it out there in case it helps someone.
With a scripted scene, you usually have 3-5 takes of the scene for each shot (wide, medium, CU, etc.). So basically the editing is about telling a predefined story using the different shots. But with this shoot, I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, but the actor had a lot of input and free reign, within the basic constraints that I had laid out. All of that is to say that what we ended up with, story-wise, was a bit messy.
For this episode, we did a wide shot (without sound), a master (medium shot), and a CU. We did a few takes of the medium and CU, but there was no script and the dialogue changed. After each take, we took the parts of the story that we liked and emphasized those moving forward, but we didn’t make an effort to repeat the dialogue verbatim. The story beats stayed the same, but the dialogue changed. The beats within any given take also tended to change–some takes only had a few of the major story beats and they were often in a different order.
That’s challenging to edit because each take is a little different. With 45 minutes of footage, I would have to spend a lot of time searching for what I needed. So, I came up with a solution to break the process into smaller chunks and make it more manageable.
Here’s what I did to simplify the process:
- I reviewed the footage to get a general sense of how I wanted to structure the story (while putting together the trailer).
- In Word, I wrote an outline for the story, sketching out nine beats for the story, and then created sequences in Premiere for each story beat.
- I dragged all the clips onto the timeline and went through all of them, cutting them up into chunks that related to the various beats. If the first two minutes of a clip were related to beat 1, I would cut and paste that part of the clip to the Beat 1 sequence, and so on.
- By the end, I had nine sequences (one for each beat of the story) with five to six clips related to that beat. These were much more manageable chunks to work with (3-7 minutes each). I edited each of these sequences individually to come up with the best possible version of each beat.
- Once I had all nine beats the way I wanted them, I put them all on a master sequence and connected them.
- Finally, I massaged the master sequence to get it to work together smoothly, using the wide shot as a cutaway for any moments where I wanted the dialogue but didn’t want to use the video.1
The nice thing about working this way is that it separates three distinct tasks (‘writing’ the story, searching/organizing the footage, and crafting the actual edit to tell the story) into separate chunks so you don’t have to switch between cognitive modes. This freed my brain up to focus on one thing at a time. And it forced me to figure out how I wanted to tell the story before I started any of the actual editing.
Again, I’m new to this. YMMV. And please contact me if you know a better way or have any tips!
I wish we had shot more b-roll because it would’ve this easier and created some diversity in the imagery. Lesson learned. ↩
If you’re wondering why I would even bother to review this movie, then you haven’t been listening to The Worst Idea of All Time podcast. Which you should because it’s so damn funny. The hosts, Guy and Tim, are watching Grown Ups 2 every week for a year, analyzing the movie, and slowly going insane.
After listening to 40 episodes in the last week, I bit the bullet and finally watched it. Here are my thoughts, my absolutely dead-serious, not at all tongue-in-cheek thoughts.
This is Sandler’s foray into experimental filmmaking. He’s in unchartered territory and in over his head, but you have to admire the bravery– he’s experimenting with anti-narrative and anti-humor but packaged in a completely commercial vehicle (even the excess of product placement is a joke in itself).
Look at the hard, unmotivated cuts, the unexplained actions, the furious randomness of the whole thing. He’s trying to tell us something about the world–something that he tried to tell us (presumably, I haven’t watched it) in Grown Ups that we just didn’t listen to.
And the joke is on us–he set out to break the comedy genre and the expectations around it and then was squarely rewarded for it, for all the wrong reasons. If that’s not a meta-commentary on our society, then I don’t know what is. This is not a man failing at comedy, this is a man asking the question “why is comedy?”
The obvious comparison is Godard’s Weekend. A non-linear or non-existent plot. Unmotivated cuts. Bizarre, unintelligible characters. Violence without motivation or consequences. Horrific accidents that happen for no reason, with no effect on the plot and no empathy evoked.
The climactic party scene, with all its fantastical elements (Shaq’s blue pee, a dog bonging a beer, and the surreal violence to name a few) and characters in costume, is a clear nod to Weekend’s fantastical use of famous historical figures showing up in the woods.
Let’s delve into the big party scene. It has all the trappings of a major climax–action, noise, excitement, proximity to the chronological end of the movie. But it’s a cargo cult, it’s empty. You think this is a failure of execution but no, you’re dead wrong. It’s exactly what the film calls for–an anti-climax, a charade. It’s as if to say “this is not a traditional story! look how empty it is!” And you, by not seeing it, are empty too.
Which brings us to the question: is Sandler content with genre-bending or is he actually trying to say anything? I say yes. The film wrestles with (sometimes literally) the changing notions of masculinity, sex roles, father- and motherhood, and the sometimes heartbreaking struggle of children trying to grow up with well-meaning but obviously not-up-to-the-task parenting. If anyone is going to deliver that message and get people to listen, it has to be Sandler himself, the poster child (no pun intended) for men-children everywhere.
In this case, the title says it all: Grown Ups 2. It’s about adults in America and the prognosis is not good. Perhaps the surgeon does not wield the knife with skill, but he surely sees that the patient is sick.
The fight scene at the party really brings this home. The only character who fits the “real man” archetype, Tommy Cavanaugh (played by Steve Austin), chooses to sublimate his raw physical strength to make the man-child (Lenny Feder/Adam Sandler) feel better about himself. But it’s a sacrifice he makes not for Feder, but for his children.
And so here we have masculinity turned on its head– the dumb meathead is the only man who in the end actually A) thinks more than 5 minutes into the future and B) is willing to sacrifice anything for a child–in his case, it’s his entire identity sacrificed for the sake of another parent’s child.
Not only would none of the other adults in the movie make this sacrifice, the thought would not even occur to them.
He called you out, parents, and not only did you hand him a pile of money, you brought your kids. You think they’re laughing at a guy who burps, farts, and hiccups at the same time. But they’re laughing at you.
I like writing these short humor pieces in my spare time and when I can’t get going on bigger projects. Read The Perfect First Date.
Words Fail Me is a comedic series of portraits of self-involved and seriously flawed people who desperately need something from each other but just can’t find the right way to put it.
Set in Chicago, the series rolls up its proverbial sleeves to ask some questions you didn’t even think to ask: what do you do when you wake up to a new roommate, get extorted by your babysitter, or spill CIA secrets to the tamale guy?
The stories are written in advance and the dialogue is improvised by actors that Robert met while taking classes and hanging out at The Artistic Home theatre, as a way to give some serious actors with dramatic chops a chance to do comedy.
Production is by Hannah Welever (cinematography), Erin Turney (sound), and Erin Miller (production assistance). They are all very good at what they do and you should hire them if you need this sort of thing.
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A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.
I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.
I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.
It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form. You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back. I will do this to indicate my lack of love for you.
I will do this to communicate that you are a waste of time as a human being. It will be an ugly thing for me to say. It will be intended to hurt you. It will be wrong for me to say. It will lack compassion. And it will hurt you. And you will either dismiss it or take it in, but in either case you will hear it and it will affect you. And you will think about what you can do next time so you can be more lovable, and with that your wound will be buried further. Or you will think about how hateful people are and how your armour needs to be thicker so that you can proceed as planned with your ideas. With that, your wound will be buried further.
The absurdity that was so wonderful in Wrong just rang false for me in Wrong Cops. There’s a delicate art to arbitrary weirdness that I can’t quite figure out, but it might come down to just “it works if it’s funny” or “it works if it fits the broader theme.”
I saw this article linked from the Scriptnotes Episode 171 blog post but I haven’t listened to the episode yet. I wanted to read it beforehand before Craig goes full-bore umbrage-taking on it, which I think I’m safe in saying that he will.
The post is titled “How Data Can Help You Write a Better Screenplay” and I see a lot of data but not a lot of actionable recommendations (sorry, my day job is marketing analyst).
My first thought was, “what the hell is Sword & Sandal? That’s an actual genre???” I guess that would be like 300 or Rome? I didn’t see 300 but everyone wore sandals in Rome (I know, it was a TV show, not a movie) and they used a lot of swords and large knives and I learned that there were two average Roman-type guys that were pivotal in many major events in Roman history and that is all true because it was on HBO.
My second thought, as a novice screenwriter, was this: “what the hell would I do with this?” So let’s say I scrap what I’m working on now (a weird comedy) and use this data to write something with a higher chance of success.
One approach would be to look at the genres that get the highest average scores and pick one of those. One problem is that we don’t know anything about the people writing in that (or any other) genre. Film Noir gets high average scores but maybe better writers are attracted to that genre. Or maybe that genre draws an older crowd of writers who have more experience. Higher scores in the genre might just mean that you’re going up against stiffer competition, not that the genre is actually easier to work in.
But even if it was easier on average, that wouldn’t really help. Because to sell the screenplay (or to land an agent), you would have to not write just an average screenplay, but a very excellent screenplay. Scoring a 6 doesn’t guarantee anything. No score guarantees anything but it’s my understanding that it takes an 8 or above to really get noticed on The Black List.
Another issue is that the average here is a bit misleading. If scores were assigned randomly, then your expected outcome would be higher if you chose a genre with a higher average. But scores are not assigned randomly, they are given by a qualified reader that reads and rates spec screenplays for (at least part of) a living. OK, maybe that’s not completely fair. Maybe the averages do indicate something about the ease of writing in a certain genre.
But even if a Film Noir is slightly easier to write, it still doesn’t help you. Because the thing is you have to stand out. If the average Film Noir is pretty good, then the bar for writing a remarkable Film Noir, i.e. one that someone will be compelled to pass on to their boss, is even higher than say a Musical Comedy, which on average scores the lowest during the survey period.
So. Another strategy is to pick a genre that has a low average score. Again, you don’t know anything about the writers in that genre. Maybe in Musical Comedy you’re competing against accomplished veterans of Broadway. OK, that’s almost certainly not true. But maybe the Musical Comedy people are very well equipped and still fail to write good screenplays, and so your average attempt will fare even worse. Either way, the big loser is the person who has to read all those bad musical comedies.
The other problem with any of these strategies is that it assumes that you decide to start writing a screenplay one day and then choose what genre to work in, as if picking the genre was something to be decided by big data.
I personally write comedy or some subgenre of comedy, or maybe dramatic stuff that makes much use of comedy.
And I’m 100% certain that the comedy I write will be better than the Sword & Sandal that I’m not going to write, mainly because my main source of knowledge about the particulars of men wearing sandals and wielding swords comes from Rome, Gladiator, a college class on Greek Philosophy and whatever else I’ve pulled out of the ether related to ancient Rome/Greece. So it would be pretty derivative and halfway through I’d realize that it would be much better as a parody, which is to say not that great anyway because parody requires deep knowledge that I don’t have.
I think most people are going to write in the genre that they know and love. Or love and think they know. Not that you can’t write in more than one genre, but I think you get the point. But pushing someone out of a genre they love into a genre they neither love nor know isn’t going to help them write something better. So this doesn’t look like a winning strategy either.
The other data in the article pertains to the flaws most commonly found in scripts. Here are the top five:
- Underdeveloped plot
- Underdeveloped characters
- Lack of escalation
- Poor structure
- Unnatural dialogue
Let’s rephrase these flaws as advice for novices like myself: make sure you have a developed plot, developed characters, action that rises at a suitable pace and to a suitable level, good structure, and natural dialogue.
In other words, the problem with your screenplay is that it’s not good at the things that good screenplays are good at. Be more good. That’s snarky, I know. This list does have some use–I looked at it and it made me think about where the weaknesses in my current script might be.
But it doesn’t really help me improve upon the weaknesses. It just shows where others have struggled. But I think those issues are sort of obvious and that writers struggle with them because they’re all really hard to do really well.
This note I did find helpful, or at least it could be helpful for the first-time writer:
First-time writers tend to go one of two ways, said Kate Hagen, a former reader who now oversees the hundred or so readers at The Black List. They write a deeply personal, pseudo-autobiographical screenplay about nothing in particular. “Everybody basically writes that script at first,” Hagen said. “You have to get it out of your system.” Or they swing for the fences and go in the opposite direction, thinking, “I’m going to write a $200 million science fiction movie,” and plan an entire universe and mythology. Those scripts, Hagen said, tend to fail for entirely different reasons.
In other words, avoid the major pitfalls that most first-time writers fall into.1
One takeaway from the whole thing might just be that writing a great screenplay is really really hard. This insight could help you decide whether or not you want to embark on writing a screenplay or not, or to be less surprised when you write something that sucks, but I don’t think it will help you write a better one.
What might help is knowing that it’s really hard to do well, so if you have the work ethic and commitment to work many hours and improve over the years, you have a good shot of standing out from the pack when you finally do write something remarkable.
Which I think probably goes against the gist of what this sort of article is all about, namely that you can hack your way to success with the help of data.
OK, back to work now.
Should this be phrased as “avoid the major pits that most first-time writers fall into?” Can you fall into a pitfall? ↩
Sorry I murdered everyone at your party, but as an introvert, I prefer one-on-one interactions to group gatherings.
I’m really sorry that everyone is dead. I prefer animals to people.
Sorry I killed everybody! I just really need my alone time.
Sorry that everyone is dead. They weren’t respecting my quiet power and inner strength. It’s a common misconception that introverts can’t lead; we’re just not always the first to speak up.
Sorry I butchered all of your friends in front of you. It’s just that I’d rather curl up at home with a good book than go to a party.
I saw it as being a movie about narcissists. And what happens when the image they project of themselves dissolves or deteriorates (violence). “I’m the guy who saves you from this awesomeness.” “I’m the cool girl.” Images of people, not people. No wonder they were miserable.
After five years, the truth comes out. And they both knew it all along, that they were playing roles. Even their relationship is defined as “not like those other couples.” It’s only defined in opposition to other people. Things crumble, they both turn ugly.
Overall, I liked it but didn’t feel good about any of it. The ending is tragic, if a little hard to believe. The FBI doesn’t have any urge to investigate a violent murder of a rich white guy? This super rich white guy doesn’t have a super rich white family that’s calling their senator and asking difficult questions? Nobody even wants to look at the tapes to see that their arrival at the house doesn’t match the timeline of her story at all?
I spent the whole movie trying to remember where I knew the detective (Kim Dickens) from. Oh, Treme. Right. And then I realized she was Joanie Stubbs in Deadwood. I’m really bad at remembering actors.
I’ve been re-reading the archives of The Last Psychiatrist as I work on a screenplay about a man that struggles and procrastinates with something important in his life (writing a play). No, it’s not autobiographical; I write every day for an hour.
Anyway, I rediscovered this quote. The bold is mine, and it ties in with the theme of the film:
Self-loathing is the defense against change, self-loathing is preferable to <mental work.> You choose misery so that nothing changes, and the Ambien and the drinking and the therapy placate the misery so that you can go on not changing. That’s why when you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, you don’t immediately crank out 30 pushups, you open a bag of chips. You don’t even try, you only plan to try. The appearance of mental work, aka masturbation. The goal of your ego is not to change, but what you don’t realize is that time is moving on regardless.
A common piece of advice is “just start!”/don’t procrastinate, etc.
Let me explain, however, why this is a cognitive necessity.
No matter how carefully you plan something in your mind– work through details, procure materials, etc– it can’t take into account everything that happens. Try imagining having sex with Paz de la Huerta; and then try actually having sex with her. The first is masturbation, the second is very tricky, although rewarding, business.
Every creative idea is a dialogue between you and yourself (masturbation); every creative act is a dialogue between you and reality (sex.) You can’t account for that other half of the dialogue until you begin it.
Reality takes many forms: the light of a computer screen, the need for the “great phrase” to be surrounded by words that are less inspired; hunger, the need to pee, fatigue, caffeine headaches, hangovers; relentless, crippling, blackening self-doubt. You can never account for these except through action. I don’t mean they are necessarily obstacles– they don’t necessarily hold you back– but the are real success of any creative act is that it transcended reality not by bypassing it, but by going through it.
Or you can just go back to masturbating.
…Happy New Year. You’re running out of time.
I ordered this book by Cal Newport last week after reading about it on one of the blogs I subscribe to. I devoured it in two days (it’s a quick read). It’s very good and there’s something that’s more trustworthy about career advice from someone that does not make his or her entire living out of doling out career advice (Newport’s main occupation is computer science professor).1
I won’t rehash the whole concept because you should just read the book or pick up the ideas for free on Cal’s blog, but basically the thesis is that the advice to “follow your passion” is at best misguided and at worst can be really bad, dangerous advice that will lead you to failure, anxiety, and a host of other problems.
Agreed, from personal experience. Then he goes on to explain that passion is something that is developed once you become really good at something. In other words, craft before passion. And that being really good at something gives you options and control over your career and the opportunity to do fun and fulfilling things.
So if you just start from passion, without the being really good at something, it will not work out for you. It’s one of those ideas that seems obvious in hindsight but that I was completely blind to for most of my working life, and it was fun to look back through various failed business ventures and careers that never worked out and realize that I was committing the exact errors he describes.
Not to mention all the painful rumination I did in my mid-20s (what should I do with my life? what’s my passion? etc. etc.). I didn’t have anything approaching an answer to those questions until I started actually doing things.
I think the big takeaway for writers and other artists is that first you have to get really good (or even great) at what you do. That’s the first step and it might take ten years of diligent practice to get there. But that’s what will give you fulfilling options, career control, and the ability to earn a lot of money.
I’m reminded of when in my real estate days, the sheer number of people who made a ton of money by selling various courses and seminars on how to get rich in real estate, which in hindsight, if you know this amazing secret to making all this money, why would you spend all the hours to put together some special course and then teach the whole world how to replicate your success, when you could just spend your time, you know, making a ton of money from your secret. And sure, it could be a desire to help others, but then why travel the country peddling this course for $395 or $1995 or whatever you’re selling it for–why not just post it online? Oh right, because there’s more money in selling a dream than there is in whatever arcane investment technique that you stumbled upon. ↩
From After Hours (1985):
MARCY On our wedding night -- I was a virgin -- well...when we made love...you've seen the film, haven't you? PAUL "The Wizard of Oz"? MARCY Yes. PAUL Yes, I've seen it. MARCY Well...when we made love... whenever he...you know...when he came...right at the moment of...orgasm...he would just scream out: "Surrender Dorothy!" That's all, just "Surrender Dorothy!" I mean, you know, instead of moaning or saying "Oh, God" or something normal like that... PAUL Wow... MARCY I mean, you know...it was pretty creepy, and I told him I thought so but he couldn't stop. I mean, he said he didn't even realize it, can you imagine?? So I just broke the whole thing off.
From David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (p. 17):
It's cost me every sexual relationship I ever had. I don't know why I do it. I'm not a political person, I don't consider myself. I'm not one of those America First, read the newspaper, will Buchanan get the nod people. I'll be doing it with some girl, it doesn't matter who. It's when I start to come. That it happens... ..."Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" Only way louder. As in really shouting it. Uncontrollably. I'm not even thinking it until it comes out and I hear it.
There is a bright and tiny joy from finding connections between works you love, whether or not they’re intentional.1 I wonder if Wallace ever saw After Hours.
I hereby commission a German to coin a word for that feeling. ↩
Finally, in production for something! We went to Senior Citizen Memorial Park in Bucktown today to film the first episode of a web series that I created. It’s a comedic series of strange vignettes from Chicago.
This first episode was a test run to see how things will go before deciding to move on to episodes two through six. And things went very well.
The actors have a detailed set of circumstances to work with but the dialogue itself is improvised, which presents a bit of a directing challenge as I had an idea of where I wanted to go but not a full map of how to get there.
Finding some really nice surprises and good moments along the way was fun. And a relief. Mostly a relief that it worked out. I didn’t invite you to this park on a cold November Saturday to create something boring and terrible.
I’m working with Hannah Welever as a DP and Erin Turbo as a sound engineer and they were both great today, as were the actors Tyler Collins and Mike Maggio, who I know Tyler and Mike through The Artistic Home.
Most, if not all of the episodes will feature actors that I’ve met through that wonderful theater.