Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where do themes come from, anyway?

Remember my really smart friend Bill? He's the one going off on postmodernism and how striking a non-judgmental pose is what accounts for the dearth of good films.

I've been corresponding with him about themes and we've come to a bit of a disagreement.

First, a little background. Both Bill and I started our lives as writers. For what it's worth, I happen to think he's quite talented. And the feeling is reciprocated.

Bill's contention is that a theme is crafted from the very beginning. Or to quote a quote he quoted to me, "People want to read your point of view. Otherwise reading your (piece) has been a waste of time."

I'm not so sure. I mean, yeah, when you're writing an essay, you need to know what point you're making. But when it comes to fiction, you're telling a story first and foremost, teaching a lesson is way –– and I mean way –– secondary.

When I first write, I actually make an effort not to think about a theme. Something compels me to tell a story and I just go with it.

Once the first draft is complete, I read it over and several themes generally present themselves. The most poignant example of that was a screenplay I wrote about six years ago about a kid who's so good at hide and seek that nobody finds him for 20 years. It didn't occur to me while I was writing it, but the story came to me as a response to my circumstances. I had just discovered in a very sudden and spectacular way that I was an idiot for trusting my financial affairs to someone else, and the theme that emerged as dominant in the story was that sooner or later, we all have to act like grownups and take responsibility for our own lives.

When I rewrite, that's when I'm aware that I'm working with a particular theme or themes. A lot of times I find that my subconscious has presented imagery, story lines, and characters that support the theme, but once I'm aware that the theme is there, I can often sharpen its message.

As a director, there's no rewriting. If you don't shoot an image, you can't exactly rework your piece to include it. The story themes have to be present in the writing, but visual themes are often a matter of some Zen kind of hyper-awareness that makes you go, "I don't know why, but I think it would be a good idea to grab a shot of that."

I used to go in with a thematic intention, but as with my writing I've come to discover that doing so is actually counterproductive. If I'm looking for a particular image, I make myself blind to the opportunities that present themselves. It's a weird kind of trust that you have to have, but if I'm prepared in every other way, the universe provides.

Does that help?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Want to know how it feels to be me? Well, here's your chance, sort of.

Tonight at 6:00, the next round of judging for the 37th Student Academy Awards will be held at the Whitsell Auditorium in Portland and the public is invited. And while you won't actually get to choose which films go on to the final smackdown in LA, you can sit there in the dark with a pen and notebook –– just like me –– and make notes about the films you're watching.

Okay, that's not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is because these films are good.

If you're an aspiring filmmaker, you need to see the level of work you better be doing if you seriously want to be taken seriously. And if you're an established filmmaker, you might want to see who's going to be taking work from you.

This is the Regional Finals judging, meaning we've narrowed the field down to no more than six entries in each category –– Narrative, Animation, Alternative, and Documentary.

Admission is free. Can't beat that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Three really smart people, and not just because they agree with me.

Yesterday, I got to be on the receiving end of three opinions by three really smart people, each of whom probably has no clue that the other two exist. What's really neat is that these three opinions are superficially distinct, but manage to overlap in an area that's really important to you, Aspiring Filmmaker.

Let's start with my really smart friend Bill. We've been emailing back and forth about films for a while, and yesterday morning I got a message from him in which he contends that post-modernism accounts for the wealth of lousy films being made. His point is that most filmmakers these days are afraid to incorporate real themes into their work because real themes require taking a moral stand, even if the moral stand is unimpeachable: Work is dignity. The love of money is the root of all evil. Family is everything. That sort of thing.

By a perfect coincidence, just after reading Bill's email, I read really smart Seth Godin's blog about magician Steve Cohen. Seth's point was that Steve Cohen makes quite a good living by doing several things, one of which is, and I'm quoting here, "He tells a story to this group, a story that matches their worldview. He doesn't try to teach non-customers a lesson or persuade them that they are wrong or don't know enough about his art. Instead, he makes it easy for his happy customers to bring his art to others."

In other words, he incorporates themes that his audiences will not only find palatable, but will nod along with.

There's no denying that a lot of vacuous Hollywood films make money. Would they make more (an objective, if not entirely complete measure of success) if they actually stood for something?

I've always thought so, but what clinched it for me was something my buddy Jeff said.

Jeff is a another really smart person. He's a doctor –– a liver and kidney specialist. But he doesn't waste his brain theorizing about film.

Jeff's daughter is the same age as mine, and as we were talking yesterday he mentioned how much he appreciated 'Yertle the Turtle'. Especially its message, summed up in the last line of the book: "And turtles, of course ... all the turtles are free / As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be."

So there you have it. Three really smart people who each in his own way says the same thing:

1) Your story needs a theme.
2) Your theme must be something your audience will connect with.

Oh, and don't give me that crap about how you don't need to bother with themes because you don't want to be Ingmar Bergman or anything, you just want to entertain.

'Pirates of the Caribbean' (the first one), 'The Incredibles', and 'Shaun of the Dead' are unquestionably three of the most entertaining films, well, ever. They also all happen to transcend traditionally mindless genres and incorporate powerful themes into their storytelling.

And 'Yertle the Turtle' is for three-year-olds.

Got it?

Monday, April 12, 2010

My report from the Student Academy Awards judging.

I just spent two days judging the Student Academy Awards.

Back when I was in film school, there were student films and there were real films. You could tell the student films because they had lousy sound, inconsistent lighting, terrible acting, and stories involving the trials and tribulations of student life.

You were supposed to see past all that to the undiscovered genius, the raw talent that, in the real world, might have what it takes to create something that was both important and watchable.

Judging by those standards, you'd be hard pressed to tell that the films I watched were made by students.

These were stories about poets and day laborers and security guards and ex-wives, told with confidence, skill, and individual style. They were, almost without exception, productions. Real, legitimate productions.

I'm not talking about the amount of money thrown at them, even though there were several with crane shots and steadicams and one even had helicopter shots of Los Angeles. (One film even had an Academy Award-nominated actor in the lead.) I'm talking about work of professional calibre across the board.

What's important here is that student films are no longer competing as student films. They're competing as films.

That's not to say they were all good. Some were extraordinary. Some were lousy. Just like in Hollywood.

I once met Brett Ratner at some Hollywood function. At the time I was quite proud because I'd written six screenplays that were tearing up the screenwriting competitions. I got something like 32 awards for them.

He was unimpressed. He gave me a bit of advice that I found –– and still find –– incredibly profound. He said (and I'm paraphrasing), "The only contest that matters is real life."

I never entered another screenwriting competition after that, which might have been an overreaction, but the lesson I took away was that you can't qualify your success. You can't just write a screenplay that's good in the context of screenwriting competitions. And you can't just make a film that's good film for a student film. Your work is either good or it's not.

If the people who made these films are smart and ambitious –– and I bet most of them are –– the films I judged in the Student Academy Awards will also play at film festivals. Right up there next to films by established, working directors. Like me.

They'll be holding their own. Even blowing my work away.

That's a good thing. A great thing.

The success of these films isn't qualified. And I'm looking over my shoulder.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What's a director's vision and how can I get one? (Part 1.a subparagraph ii)

I want to make another point about that stuff I said back on March 12th about how humankind deals with the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Neil Blomkamp, and Barry Sonnenfeld were all drawn, for one reason or another, to the same material. Just in time for their movies to come out when the public wanted to see them.

Think about it.

What that means is that these directors all happened to be on board with the story two to three years before the audiences were ready for them. They had to be. It takes years to make a movie, from the time it's written through its development, shooting, post-production, marketing, and release.

The genius of Spielberg, I'm convinced, is that he wants to make what people are going to want to see two or three years before they even have a clue that they want to see it. And it's not just Spielberg, although he's probably the most consistent.

Remember 'First Monday in October'? That came out just after Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court. Want a freakier one? How about 'The China Syndrome'? Twelve days after that film was released, Three Mile Island melted down. The producers couldn't have asked for better PR for the movie. Suddenly, everybody needed to see it.

By the way, I don't think Spielberg –– or any successful filmmaker –– knows how he knows. He's kind of like Wayne Gretzky, who could only explain why he was so good by saying, "I just skate to where the puck is going to be." Something just gets under his skin. It has to. How else could you work that hard on something for two, three, sometimes four years?

Here's the bottom line on material: You can't know. You can't know what's going to resonate with the fickle public any more than you can project what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is going to be on May 13, 2012. So don't try.

Find the material that speaks to you. If you're lucky, it'll speak to an audience as well. If you're not, at least you won't have spent years of your life pretending to care.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

What really matters, anyway?

Back when I was an advertising copywriter, I had the good fortune to work for an ad agency in a building designed by Frank Gehry.

When we first moved in, I hated the place. Didn't like the aesthetic. Couldn't understand how this Gehry guy could be so famous and have such abysmal taste in materials and colors.

But after a couple of months, I realized that I was more productive there than I'd been at any job I'd had. The place worked. It went beyond what an office is generally meant to do and created an energy that affected all of the employees. Or me, anyway.

When I left the job, I didn't like the aesthetic or the colors any better, but I had respect for what the architect had been able to accomplish. The agency soon moved into another building –– also designed by Gehry. The new building was much prettier, but it didn't work as well. When books are written about Frank Gehry's illustrious career, the second building gets a lot more ink than the first.

What's my point? My point is that stuff works on a lot of levels. And each person's estimation of the greatness of someone's work is a function of the areas that are relevant to the person. I was able to disregard the aesthetic of the Frank Gehry building I worked in because the energy was so wonderful. (And just so you know, I think a lot of Gehry's work is visually stunning. The one building I worked in just happened to be butt-ugly.)

The lesson? Two lessons. As a consumer, know what you're evaluating and disregard the stuff that's not important. if you go to restaurants to feel pampered, don't make a reservation at the place where you have to sit on a wooden bench and put up with surly waiters, even if the food is supposed to be amazing. If you like watching films with incredible character development, don't expect to be satisfied by a Quentin Tarantino movie.

And as a creator, understand that there are a lot of different areas on which you're going to be evaluated. And don't get pissed off when someone tears you apart for not nailing something you weren't aiming at. If you really really really care about special effects, so what if someone thinks your performances suck?

Sure, it would be nice if you could nail every area, 100%. But then you'd have nothing left to do but die.