Thursday, June 25, 2009

Friends will let you starve. Strangers will give you work.

I was told this quote by Mary Knox, the executive producer at Curious Pictures, who attributed it to John Kamen, who runs @radical media. It probably applies to some degree in a lot of businesses, but it's particularly poignant in directing, where your professional fate is determined a single job at a time.

From a client's point of view, directing is a weird combination of fashion and vacation. By hiring the right guy (and it usually is a guy –– a topic I'll cover in another blog), people get to brush up against glamorous people like me, in glamorous locations like New York or LA.

The unintended consequence of this is that strangers are a lot more exciting to consider working with than friends, regardless how capable, talented, or easy to work with those friends are.

I learned this lesson the hard way, working for free and even putting my own money into producing jobs for friends and friends of friends who needed commercials but didn't have the money. The jobs always went well, the spots always came out beautifully, and when all was said and done, everybody couldn't wait to work together again.

Some of those spots even went on to win prestigious awards.

And yet, as soon as a project with a budget came along, those same friends hired big-name directors to shoot them.

It's been more than ten years since the last time I worked with these guys. And in the intervening years they haven't asked me to bid on a single project. Not because they don't like me or my work, but because they know me too well. It never even crosses their mind.

To be fair, this works in both directions. Most directors want to hire big-name DP when they have a big budget, in spite of the favors they've collected from the people trying to break in.

But if you know it –– and now you do –– here are two rules to live by: 1) Only do a favor if you're going to get something out of it. A spot for your reel, a trip to Buenos Aires, or an opportunity to try a new technique. And 2) don't resent it when your buddy calls up to brag that he got to shoot with some famous person.

Eventually, you might get to be that famous person.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shooting a stage to look like an exterior? You better watch your step.

I don't care how serious the movie is, when I see people chopping through the jungle without once checking to see what they're stepping in, I laugh.

The reason jungle movies are usually shot on stages is because stages are easier. But there's a problem with easier. It doesn't look hard.

Now I'm not saying this because I'm a disciple of Lars von Trier –– as a matter of fact, I happen to think his entire Dogme 95 manifesto is a bunch of crap. (As he seems to, too. Watch any of his films and just count all the times he breaks his own rules, starting with #10.)

But where I agree with him has to do with intention, sort of. His position is that film should be honest; mine is that film should feel honest. To that end, I'm okay with shooting a stage to look like a jungle. Just make it look like a jungle.

All of it.

A smooth floor is a dead giveaway that your actors aren't really outside. And even if you can't see the ground, you can tell by the way they move.

I've chopped through my share of jungles. Trust me, you're stepping in –– or trying to avoid –– a bunch of really interesting things down below knee-level.

Peter Jackson knows this. Now you do, too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You can tell you've made it in Hollywood when you've become a "type".

A type is different from a role. A role is "young mom"; a type is Jennifer Anniston. When casting specs go out, they often mention both: "The role is for a young mom. We're looking for a Jennifer Anniston type." What it means has to do with the actor's voice –– and when I say voice, I mean not the way he or she talks, but the unique way in which he or she communicates.

This isn't limited to actors, by the way. You could be a Fellini-esque director. Or be a John Toll-like DP. Or a Charlie Kaufman-type writer. The thing about your voice is that a) you can't fabricate it and b) you only discover it after years of doing whatever it is you do. Once you find it (or it finds you), you can try to ignore it like Ben Affleck, work to counter it like Nicolas Cage, or embrace it like Jack Nicholson.

I vote for embracing it because if it's true to you, you're not going to fool anybody by denying it.

What's funny about types is that they don't necessarily spell success for the prototype. (That's where that word comes from, by the way. I just figured that out.)

Two examples:

I once directed a regional phone commercial that had a one-line role for a mailman. One actor who came in was amazing. He took that one line and gave it back to me dozens of different ways. He added not just an accent, but could dial in the amount of accent. He was an utter pleasure to work with and I knew immediately that he was far greater than the role.

I didn't recognize him, but it was Richard Sanders, who played Les Nessman on WKRP.

The other example is comes from a documentary I saw about Charlie Chaplin. Apparently, at the height of his popularity, Mr. Chaplain found himself inspired to enter a Charlie Chaplain Look-Alike contest. He didn't even make the finals.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 3): Conflict between want and need.

I have a theory about stories. A good story is not just about the conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist. You tell a story like that to four-year-olds.

A good story is also about the conflict within the protagonist, between what he wants and what he needs.

I can't think of a better example of this than 'The Incredibles'.

If you haven't seen the movie, stop reading right now and go rent it. I'm serious. It's one of the most perfectly crafted stories ever and I refuse to teach you another thing until you've seen it.

Okay.

Where was I?

Right. 'The Incredibles'. The protagonist is Mr. Incredible. The antagonist is Syndrome. At its simplest, this is a story about the struggle between the two.

But there's more. What defines Mr. Incredible are two things: his want, which is to work alone, and his need, which is to save the world.

Until Syndrome comes along, those two aspects of his character are perfectly compatible. And even though he's no longer a working superhero, Mr. Incredible the insurance adjuster can't suppress his need to save the world –– he just does it one person at a time.

Syndrome changes everything.

First, he forces Mr. Incredible to come out of retirement. Then he forces Mr. Incredible to realize that he can't do it alone.

Ultimately, the conflict that has to be resolved is within Mr. Incredible. He has to decide whether his want is more powerful than his need.

Here's a tip. It never is.

Mr. Incredible's need to save the world is so great that he'll not only work with someone else, but work with his family -- the last people he'd want to put in harm's way.

In a really good story, like this one, by resolving the conflict between his want and his need, the hero experiences growth.

Even a four-year-old knows that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 2): Familiarity.


Oscar makes an excellent point about my blog on the new Star Trek movie and since it's relevant to creating an interesting protagonist, I'm going to write a blog instead of a response. It doesn't matter how bad things get for your protagonist if you don't care about him.

So how do you create a protagonist that your audience will care about?

It used to be conventional Hollywood wisdom that your protagonist had to be a good guy. I don't know if it was 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' that changed it for Hollywood, but that's the film that changed it for me. Here you have two really bad guys--robbers, murderers, cheaters at cards--and yet you can't help but root for them.

Why?

A lot of people think it has to do with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but I think most of the credit goes to William Goldman, the writer.

For me, it comes down to one scene. The one in which Butch Cassidy wants to see just how good a shot the Kid is.

Sundance misses. And then he asks, "Can I move?"

What Goldman did with that was to humanize Sundance. Sure, he's a bad guy. Such a bad guy that he's known for being an incredible shot, and you don't shoot tin cans back in the old west, you shoot people. But he's a bad guy who a) feels bad about missing and b) asks permission to try again.

From that one scene, we can build a picture of Sundance. We can imagine what he's like as a person, not just as a killer, and the secret about protagonists is that we like them because we feel as if we know them.

I'm not talking about giving your hero flaws, although flaws can help. I'm talking about making your hero familiar. A good actor can help a good writer, but only under the leadership of a good director. In this case, George Roy Hill.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why JJ Abrams is worth every $#%&!!! cent he makes.

I just saw the latest Star Trek movie.

If you haven't seen it yet, go now. If you have, go again. That movie is a two-hour master class in one of the most important aspects of story you can learn.

I call it "Bad to worse."

What it means is that it's not enough to have a protagonist overcoming challenges on the way to achieving his goal. You do that and you end up with 'Taken', the Liam Neeson movie that's moderately entertaining, but totally uninvolving.

What you need is to have a protagonist trying to overcome challenges and failing. Or succeeding only to face bigger challenges. Preferably both.

I know. You want examples.

Okay, an example of the first is when First Officer Kirk tries to convince Captain Spock to pursue Nero. He doesn't succeed. He fails, so spectacularly that Spock kicks him off the Enterprise, marooning him on a desolate planet light years from where he needs to be in order to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

An example of the second follows almost immediately. Kirk leaves his shuttle craft in order to hike the 14 kilometers to the Federation outpost, only to be attacked by some huge, mean, hungry creature. But he's saved, sort of, when a bigger, meaner creature takes out the first creature. And then starts chasing him.

The brilliance of this movie is that it does this over and over again.

In lesser hands (like Pierre Morel's -- the guy who directed 'Taken') Kirk would need Mr. Scott to transport the two of them onto the Enterprise while it's traveling at warp speed and it would work. With Abrams, it works, but Mr. Scott ends up in a cooling duct full of water, at risk of drowning if Kirk can't get him out. (To be fair, a lot -- perhaps most -- of the credit should go to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers. But Abrams is the director, and therefore ultimately responsible for the story.)

One of my screenwriting teachers at the UCLA Extension used to say, "Put your hero up a tree, then throw rocks at him." JJ Abrams then sets the tree on fire and throws in an earthquake.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 1): Single-minded determination.

It’s been said that art reflects life. It’s also been said that movies are art. If those two statements are true, then movies reflect life.

Which they don’t.

Movies reflect a distilled version of life. In simple terms, they take out the uninteresting. Or should.

Which brings me to the protagonist.

The difference between a movie protagonist and, say, you, is single-minded determination. The protagonist of a movie is attempting to achieve something against overwhelming difficulties. He might have to pick up his dry cleaning or try to figure out why his insurance company won’t cover his acupuncture, but if he does, it’s because those represent the overwhelming difficulties he has to face in order to achieve his goal. Not because these are the things he needs to take care of. And certainly not because it’s stuff he enjoys doing.

It’s an important distinction. Heroes have quests. And quests aren’t something you get to between meetings.

That’s not to say heroes don’t have shit to take care of. That shit is reality and if you’re creating a realistic hero, you can’t have him live in an unrealistic world. But for a movie to be interesting, you want to watch a hero pursuing a goal, not taking Thursday afternoon off to go for a hike.