After helping out my friends with their web series, Menace, I’ve been itching to get back on set and shake off the feeling that comes from writing and writing and writing so much but not making anything. So I met with the DP yesterday and we set a shooting date for June on a simple short comedy. I can’t say too much about it because it’s only going to be around two minutes and the description would spoil the joke. But, it’s going to be fun and we’re going to make a mess of a sidewalk in Chicago.
I’m not a mathematician but I like to think that breaking a story is like is like solving a mathematical proof, one that hasn’t been solved before.
Same concept, but not as difficult. Math is harder than writing.
When I start, I have an idea of where I want to go with it. It might be one scene that I’ve been playing in my head, something that hasn’t found a home in a larger story yet. I have about a half dozen of these at any given time. I know them so well that I have names for them like “the trunk scene” or “the park bench scene” or the “suicidal check-in scene.” They’re orphan scenes, waiting to find a home in the right script.
Or it starts with some characters or a concept or just something I want to play with (con artists, jewel thieves, a quixotic adventure across Chicago in a day, etc.).
Eventually, a couple pieces fit together and I can see that there’s a story there. Then the hard part is building it out so it’s a full movie. Sometimes the middle shows up first and it’s about breaking the beginning and the end. A much harder version is when I have the beginning and end and the middle is the part I can’t grasp yet.
Then for weeks I sit and write ways in and out of it, trying to pull together threads, going down dead-end alleys, writing notes on possibilities. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall for a month and have to put it down — it doesn’t break until I pick it up again a year later and find the missing connection, the way through.
But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit down every morning and work around the problem until one day it clicks and the floodgates open and the story just pours out. For me, the two hard parts of writing a feature are this part (breaking the story) and then rewriting it to actually make it good. The middle part, the first draft and the core action/dialogue usually comes out pretty easily. It’s easy to tell a good story poorly. Rewriting is about telling a good story well.
But breaking it is always the most rewarding part. With each little piece that falls into place, there’s a click, a feeling of pure joy. Sometimes it’s days and days of “no, no, no, no, no” and then one day there’s a “yes” and things click and I know I have something real.
I think it’s like what solving a mathematical proof would be like because there’s a suspense to it (like in a good story). There’s always the chance that it will never click. That I’ll spend months on it and it will never break. There’s real fear there (to steal a line from the amazing Toni Erdmann, which I saw last night) and I think that’s what makes this exciting work.
I find that it helps to have a few scripts in the pipeline and to write every day. When I write every day, writer’s block isn’t an excuse to stop. It just means it’s time to put one script away for now and work on another.
Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.
— Why Filmmakers Should Write Often. Maybe Every Day (Musicbed)
Every day in my opinion. but that’s just me.
I really enjoyed this. Lots of good stuff in here on working with low budgets and getting the most out a little money, production-wise.
A few takeaways:
- He started with black and white to eliminate a lot of variables and work faster.
- He started with a scene where he could control the camera tightly, so that the first scene would be high quality and later shots in uncontrolled environments would register as a choice and not an accident.
- He did the same for sound, getting high quality sound in the first scene so that people weren’t immediately alienated by the quality of the sound.
- By the time people realized how cheap the film was, they were already into the story.
- Working in film noir or a crime film gives you a lot of creative freedom because the audience knows you’re going to get back to that main story, enabling you to take quite a few leaps and experiment without compromising the comprehensibility of the film.
Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to developing a daily writing habit, I made a little web app that tracks your daily writing streak. Just a fun side project as I learn more about how to build websites, but it actually works. Check it out if you try to write every day and find that it’s hard to keep up.
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.
If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium. And I sincerely wish more video essayists would rip off the other great film essayists: Chris Marker, Godard, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen. Or even rip off non-video essayists. I would kill to see someone make video essays the way Pauline Kael wrote criticism. That would be my jam!
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
This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.
This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.
It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!
Disclaimer: Some of this information may have changed since last year and while I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work. Consult your SAG-AFTRA local for questions and guidance.
For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. ↩
He passed away earlier this week.
Here’s an interview with some of this thoughts on filmmaking. I admire him and his work a great deal, but don’t agree with everything he says: