Steal Like an Artist, Tommy Wiseau Edition

Abstraction vs. realism

I’ve been watching interviews with Roy Andersson about A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a film I saw a few months ago and fell in love with. It’s what inspired me to take the short film I’m working on now in a more absurd, abstract direction.


Now I appreciate the abstraction more than realism, of course. It’s more interesting… there are not so many details as in realism, but because of that you have the feeling that it’s richer than realism, because you have contact with your fantasy more.

– Roy Andersson

Two kinds of perfectionism

Cal Newport on two kinds of perfectionism:

The important part of my process — the part that separates this obsessiveness with the pathological variety — is that when my interval is done, I stop. Inevitably, I’m still well short of an ideal output, but what matters to me is not this specific outcome, but instead the striving for perfection and the deliberate practice this generates.

In other words, I want to keep getting better, not necessarily make this particular project the best thing ever.

I’ve thought about this before but never put it into words in my head. For me, this is the optimal framework: long-term perfectionism with a short-term focus on practice and shipping my work. This current film or script or project cannot be perfect (“you can only be as good as you are”) but if I do this every day for the next 20 years, I will get much much better at it. Perfect is probably a mythical unattainable goal, but very very good is attainable.

Or as The Last Psychiatrist puts it:

One of the great insights of psychoanalysis is that you never really want an object, you only want the wanting, which means the solution is to set your sights on an impossible ideal and work hard to reach it. You won’t. That’s not just okay, that’s the point. It’s ok if you fantasize about knowing kung fu if you then try to actually learn kung fu, eventually you will understand you can never really know kung fu, and then you will die. And it will have been worth it.

Notes on Lion Taming: Episode 3

On this episode, I meander through the following bullets:

  • My menacing doorbell.
  • A strange night.
  • A new possible location.
  • Buster Keaton and rewriting a key part of my script.

Intro music: “Three Never Does Anything” by FortyOne.

Music bed: Sonata for Cello and Piano No1 in E minor Op38 (Brahms) by Wendy Warner, cello; Eileen Buck, piano 

The Art of the Gag

I’m in love with these video essays by Tony Zhou. This one’s about how Buster Keaton did physical humor and it’s amazing to me how well these hold up today.



Deliberate Practice for Screenwriting

I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport and what he has to say about deliberate practice:

Similar findings have been replicated in a variety of fields. To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

Read the whole post, it’s good stuff. Actually, just read his whole damn book. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read this past year and it’s more than just about how to get better at things, it’s a a treatise on “doing what you love” and why that is not very good advice — to paraphrase, you fall in love with what you get good at. There’s more but it’s late and I don’t have the brain power to paraphrase better. Just read it.

Anyway, so I had a thought last night while reading one of Newport’s blog posts. My thought was that while I’m fully on board with what he’s preaching, I haven’t really implemented it in a deliberate way. I do practice writing almost every day and I do read great screenplays and study films but when I write, I just set out to write something good with the goal of eventually writing something great.

But I haven’t taken the time to identify my weaknesses and deliberately work on them.

So. This morning I wrote out a list of what I think my weaknesses are. They’re based on feedback I’ve received from writer friends that have read my work, or from intelligent audience members at staged readings, or from industry script readers on the Blcklst. Plus some things that I just want to get better at, even if I’m already pretty good at them.

The goal is to stretch myself and also to generate a lot of new material that will eventually find its way into a film that I can shoot in 2016 on a low budget.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Writing stories with premises or ideas that are big enough to carry a movie but small enough to be shot with a micro-budget.
  • Writing absurd comedy that also has character depth.
  • Writing fascinating main characters (my supporting characters tend to be more interesting than the main character, which is not good).
  • Writing unconventional but believable courtship/love scenes.
  • Writing physical comedy.
  • Writing suspense.

I’m going to tackle these in my weekday morning writing sessions (weekends are for other ongoing projects that need longer dedicated time periods to work through) by either brainstorming multiple ideas, scenes, or treatments for each item, depending on the nature of the skill.

Notes on Lion Taming: Episode 2

We’re learning! After recording this one twice, I’m getting more of the hang of it. Less drippy. More pithy.

On this episode, I meander through the following bullets:

  • General neurotic thoughts around writing, documentary style.
  • A production meeting with the producers.
  • Finding and locking down a location and why we need to get a DP before doing that, which drives me nuts (the non-linear nature of this pre-production business).
  • The possibility (and surreal nature) of getting a somewhat famous Brazilian actor to be in the film.


Intro music: “Three Never Does Anything” by FortyOne.

Music bed: “A Final Warning” by Caribou.

Notes on Lion Taming: Episode 1

I’m trying something new. This is episode one of an audio diary I’m making to document the process of making my first short film. In this episode I talk about who I am, what I’m working on, and what this podcast will be about.


Intro music: “Three Never Does Anything” by FortyOne.

Music bed: “A Final Warning” by Caribou.

Thoughts on Project Greenlight

This was the first season I’ve watched and I thought maybe as a beginning filmmaker it would offer some insight into the process.

I’m not sure that it really did because a lot of what went on in the show felt manufactured for drama. Maybe that’s the editing. I don’t know. After watching the first 20 minutes of the film that was made, The Leisure Class, I decided that the show was more about making an entertaining reality show than giving some kind of documentary insight into the process of Hollywood movie making.

Basically, all of the drama that happens on the show turns out to be mostly irrelevant to the final product. They spent so much time going back and forth about film vs. digital. It didn’t really matter. Sure, it’s beautifully shot, but everyone’s watching it at home on HBO, not on a big screen. While watching the show, I thought “man, you should take the extra shooting days! It’s your first rodeo, this will give you leeway to make mistakes!”

But it wouldn’t have mattered. The issue with the movie was the script and not the picture or the acting or the directing. I actually think Mann directed it well, at least from what I saw. The performances were good and the shots were good. The story had a lot of issues though, right from the start.

And I realized that yeah, HBO cared a lot more about making a compelling TV show than a compelling movie, because there’s no way, just no way that under any other circumstance would they have taken his script and said “yes, this is brilliant, we want to make this.”

It’s not like the premise was so terrible, it’s just that it’s not a final draft of a script. It’s an early draft with a lot of problems that could be solved and punched up. Or if not, they would shelve it and move on. I don’t think half the people on the show even read the script. The notes they were giving him on the rough cut were things that should’ve been fixed in development: Fiona’s character arc, Matt Damon telling him that there were issues with the main character — yeah, if you had read the script, you would’ve seen that coming.

The show left me wanting to hate Mann but I ended up thinking he’s pretty good as a director and might be a decent writer, but he really needed guidance on that front and they let him down. I think he would’ve been better off making his first feature on a $25k budget and learning all those difficult lessons in obscurity. It’s a lot easier to fail in obscurity. I can’t imagine anything worse than becoming a famous artist before your art merits fame.1

  1. Within the realm of artistic careers. Obviously, there are worse things in life. 

Victoria (2015)


My brother and his girlfriend were raving about this when I visited them in Germany in August and I’ve been dying to see it since then. Well, it’s at the Music Box this week and the local foreign film meetup group planned an outing. Man did I love this film. It grabs you by the throat and never let’s go, easing up only for a few minutes near the middle before taking off again.

It’s one that’s stayed with me too, at least over the past few days. I feel like I knew the characters intimately and it’s almost so much to process that only now is it sinking in emotionally.

A lot of the hype around the film was that it was shot all in one take. They did it three times and used the best one, working off of a “script” that was about 12 pages, so the dialogue was mostly improvised. I’m kind of on the fence about the one-take thing — maybe for an unexpected reason. It works brilliantly and never felt like a gimmick to me. I think if you didn’t know about it going in, then you probably wouldn’t think about it until after the movie was over or maybe midway though, wondering “wait, have they cut yet?” The story’s that good though, that you don’t check out to think about the technical stuff.

The reason I’m on the fence is that I think that it’s so good that it didn’t need to be in one take. Not that they shouldn’t have done it that way. Maybe what I’m saying is that I wish that didn’t have to be part of the marketing of it — I mean, it has to be part of the marketing because it’s a big deal and you want people to see it and the one-take thing helps. But I wish that people would just see it because it’s such a damn good film. Maybe you can’t separate them. I don’t know. I’m rambling.

I kept thinking throughout how spot on the acting was, and how well they captured a compressed courtship, when two people, both a little drunk, meet in a night and end up spending the night (or more) together. It wasn’t cutesy and compact. It was natural and tenuous and playful and really well done.

Left me with an aching feeling, in a good way. Just fucking see it, in a theater preferably.

Older Entries //