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What is story or why does my wife do all the grocery shopping?

There are days when I walk around and I don’t see humans; I see monkeys. It can happen as a cute blonde teenager passes by and her forearm is held in just the right way, soft blonde hair shining in the light, and from that point on – monkeys. I feel my own skull and the coarse black hair I inherited from my mother and think about the silver-back gorilla at the zoo. When this perceptual shift happens, I watch the world and the people in it. The people stop having mundane problems and are simply gathering food before it gets dark. They scurry through the cash register line chattering about what shiny objects celebrities have gathered, and where to get them. They go home to their boxes made of clay and sticks, light their hearths and sleep someplace safe.

It’s from these visions where I derive the answer to what is story. In its simplest form, story is the answer to why. Why don’t we go exploring at night? Once upon a time there was a jaguar that waited patiently at the edge of our grove. He can see better than we can, he can move faster than we can, and he has sharp teeth and claws. You can wander into the night if you like, but no one who has, comes back. Soon it became a little girl in a red cape, who shouldn’t talk to strangers. She went to grandmother’s house and met a wolf. He ended up eating her, swallowing her whole. Then it became the gang members who were out trolling for a kill on a Friday or Saturday night. They drive with their lights off, and if anyone flashes their high beams at them in a Good Samaritan fashion, they follow them home and murder them in their own beds.

Story is the bridge between instinct and wisdom in our experience. We have instincts that initially guide us from our primitive roots to the ability to pass on our experience to those that follow. A broken leaf on a trail tells a story to a hunter who is experienced in tracking. Does it tell him when the last deer came through? Was it being chased? Was someone else who is inexperienced and sloppy hunting it? A painting on a wall can capture a moment in time. It can express the inner emotion of the audience. It can draw out the emotion of the audience from centuries in the past. Story is communication for the purposes of explaining why things are the way they are.  Why do tears come when someone we love passes on? Why do they stop? Why are we afraid of the dark? Why do we look both ways before crossing the street?

We have dreams and we have feelings and they come to us at times without a frame of reference and without a guide. That is the purpose of story – to guide our species forward with lessons from the past. Someone else has had these feelings, has encountered a situation like the one someone is going through today, and has chosen to pass the answer or the partial answer forward so that you, the present man, can experience something new.

You just ordered the Sizzle: The Steak costs extra.

Actor: Free, Costume Designer: Free, Costume: $400

At the entry level of film-making, you will find yourself begging, borrowing and occasionally returning-for-refund everything you can. There are still two things in movie-making you can not cheap out on: Performance and Sound. You need those two things just to tell a story. To be competitive with an average filmmaker? You need pretty pictures with shallow depth of field, appropriate lighting, and decent art design. Something that says I didn’t shoot this in a cream-colored walled apartment with no decorations.

Now I am actually a very pragmatic guy who tries to make his way through the world with as much honor and integrity as possible. I do not like a hard sale, and I try not to perpetrate them on anyone. I’d rather be able to look you in the eye and say “we’re going to do the best work we possibly can, and work to get this film seen and recognized for all of our efforts.” I would be ecstatic if that and a handshake were all I needed to attract talented people; however, I’m not seeing this as a very successful method.

For example: I was reading a casting call for a short film that was looking for help this summer. In the first paragraph, they began with their accolades, Lead Faculty at a (checkbook) Film School, a Pro-Football Player who has sold several un-produced screenplays on spec, and a writer who will be making this his directorial debut (on this project) to demonstrate his ability to direct a feature-length film. He wrote a movie, $25 million budget, $27 million Domestic Gross released earlier this year. All three are represented by a Top 5 Hollywood Talent Agency.

You have 30 seconds to pitch me, son.

They claim, “the short film is already ‘scheduled’ to be
pitched upon completion to several influential persons in Hollywood. This will be used as a sizzle reel piece to shop a feature to be shot here in Denver. It will be marketed as the feature film that will help bring film incentives to Colorado.”

Interestingly, they get to the pitch in the third paragraph. The pay
will be low, most of the crew are working on it for exposure, and it’s touted
as a great opportunity for actors to be seen and/or be recognized when this film gets marketed to studios for feature funding.

Most of this is possible, but realize this posting is from Colorado – a state without any viable incentives. Colorado voters do not want to fund their K-12 schools, let alone subsidize the movie industry. The reality of this posting is that people, employing film students as free crew and looking for free talent, are hoping to get a bigger better deal for themselves via their already established contacts. Fair enough – they are selling an opportunity to be seen in passing, but there were a lot of shiny lights before they got to it.

Somewhere in here is a balance between professionalism and
opportunism. It reminded me of the article by Seth Godin, Rockstar to the Modern Man, and his article on Hope and the Magic Lottery.

Seth states, “you deserve better than the dashed hopes of a magic lottery ticket. Magic lottery hope is a damaging psychological force for people who are taking risks, and that hard work is the ultimate path to success. Hard work isn’t sexy or
glamorous.”

Lets face facts. You need some sizzle to sell your piece even if you tend to use the above board/honest approach. It seems that if all things are equal, actors and/or crew will go with the more sparkly option, the one that overtly offers a chance at the Magic Lottery Ticket. Even if you are adept at transferring your enthusiasm to your prospective volunteer, they have to see something in it for them.

So I ask you fellow filmmakers, how much do you play on people’s hopes
to inspire them to get on board your projects? Is it possible to do it
otherwise- with people you do not have a relationship with?

Tarantino Baby!

I’m not sure who the hot filmmaker that every fan boy wants to emulate is today, but a couple of years ago it was QT. Guy Ritchie, Donnie Darko you know the drill.

We're too cool for film school.

You have a bunch of obnoxious proto-hipsters who love these movies, quote these movies, dress like they’re in Reservoir Dogs. It was always a script with two twenty-something’s in black suits with black ties and guns pointed at each other quipping not very witty crap and saying “fuck” a lot for no better reason than to be maverick filmmakers. Between that and all the film school clichés it can be excruciating to try to try discover your own voice. For my own sanity, I hold his work and his public persona at arms length. I’m always on the look out for a way to disarm a QT fan boy.

Reitman & Cody

The current darling of all aspiring filmmakers, and evidently Hollywood at large is Jason Reitman.

I like his movies, but it just appears as though he’s being lauded as the second coming of Orson Welles or something.  I was listening to Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment and Jason was discussing being a director, and he is as humble as can be. One of the things he said that I often hear in my editing classes is what makes a director (or editor) good is if what they are doing does not get in front of the story. If the cuts of the movie are super cool, you are paying attention to the edit not the story. It takes you out of it. Jason echoed this, directing is a series of binary decisions, and if they put the director in front of the story the audience is taken out of it. Good advice from multiple sources.

I happened to find QT’s Treatment episode and I gave it a listen. That’s when it occurred to me. Tarantino isn’t a director at heart. He’s first and foremost a writer. He’s a PhD dissertation of film genre and technique. That guy is SUH-mart. But he’s not a director that gets in the way of the story he’s telling. See it clicked in when I remembered the episode of Alias where he played a spy that took over Sydney’s (Jennifer Garner’s) base. He was supposed to be this hyper-cool spy in the vein of Tarantino’s Madonna-Virgin speech. Problem was he didn’t write it, and he’s not a great actor. So the episode flubbed as far as I was concerned.

QT

That’s when I realized that the parts of Tarantino’s movies where I feel like he’s getting the way of the story isn’t from his directing- it’s what he’s writing.

Specifically in Inglorious Bastards when Hans Landa is interviewing the French farmer, and he pulls this deus-ex-machina with the character’s language to bring the dialogue from subtitled French to English… it bugged the crap out of me. He literally reached out of the movie screen, tapped my chin, bopped me on the nose for looking down and then smiled smugly at how clever he was. He makes up for it by being a dialogue writer who is insanely creative and original. But the multitude of choices he made as a director… none of those distracted me from the story.

Yesterday I heard someone say that they wouldn’t watch the World of Warcraft Movie unless they got a good director like Quentin Tarantino to direct it. Well I realized that QT has gone up a couple of notches in my book but I’m not sure the world is ready for an Elven Mr. Pink, or a Dwarven Mr. White.

Do not get in the way of the story. Directing is a series of decisions that add up into the story you are telling. If you find yourself concentrating on putting your mark on the piece- you are not doing it right. You probably chose the piece for the wrong reason. It is a creatively fatal mistake.

Taking Stock… Part One(ish)

  1. I managed to improve my standing in a soul-sucking corporate job.
  2. I “celebrated” my 10 year anniversary with IBM.
  3. I received my first IMDB credit.
  4. I managed to get a parachute on my way out of soul-sucking corporate job. (Laid off).
  5. I moved my kid brother out of my house.
  6. I went into therapy and treated my PTSD.
  7. I fell more in love with my wife.
  8. I discovered the secret to pizza crust from scratch.
  9. I lost the secret to pizza crust from scratch.
  10. I found it again and wrote it down this time.
  11. I counseled my friend through her final break up with her high school sweetheart of five years.
  12. I learned how many frames of an image it takes to draw your attention in a montage.
  13. I learned how to accept Bettman fixing the Stanley Cup Finals so his boy toy Crosby could finally win something.
  14. I ‘discovered’ more talent, we made a movie together, it was the most entertaining piece of the student show.
  15. I lost my favorite gaffer to his inability to apologize sincerely.
  16. I made a really good friend and colleague in a guy named after the german word for tank.
  17. I got to see Bailee’s boobs online.
  18. I discovered my brand of Scotch.
  19. I made a movie about Superman, but Superman was a complete over-anxious nerd that wanted to get laid more than save the city.
  20. I got an internship with the Film Commission.
  21. I converted that internship into a job.
  22. I learned how supportive a fellow I really am.
  23. I learned not to care what other people MIGHT be thinking.
  24. I learned to pay more attention to what I think.
  25. I got my school to let us use the Green Screen Studio on the weekend.
  26. I discovered 4chan.
  27. I regretted that discovery.
  28. I learned how to twitter.
  29. I had Sushi with Ben in Boulder.
  30. I learned that you have to keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.
  31. I worked with my first composer.
  32. I found an editor that I love.
  33. I discovered my website making skills are so outdated I have to start over.
  34. I learned that if you keep the genders of your crew pretty evenly matched- the boys behave and are a lot less annoying.
  35. I reconnected with an old acquaintance who was also from Michigan, lived in Kentucky and ended up in film school in Colorado. We became awesome friends.
  36. I found a great colleague in D Dubs.
  37. I hypothesized that the path to success is through integrity, generosity, and hard work.
  38. I finished my first film, shot on film, with Panavision cameras. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Editing, Best Acting, and Screenplay.
  39. I started blogging.
  40. I discovered you have to write to direct. You have to edit to direct. You have to produce to direct. You have to act to direct. You have to direct to direct.

I like apples…

I think one of my favorite memories of my father was when we went to go see Good Will Hunting. It was in Ponca City, Okalahoma at a duplex theatre. I remember it so well because as we walked to the car that cold wintery night he said, “That was probably the most significant films of your life”. You see to him, I was Will Hunting. Angry. Hurt. But brimming with potential. Over the years that moment came to mean a few other things.

Would I go on to write a movie that would win an Oscar like Ben and Matt?

Would I get to canoodle with Jennifer Garner? (Still LOVE her smile).

Some time later, but before I started to transition to my new career in film he dreamed about me being on stage accepting an award.

That day hasn’t happened, but we’re getting closer every step of the way.

On the advice of my friend Ben Whitehair, future Vinny Chase: http://playbillsvspayingbills.com/2009/12/22/taking-stock/

The theme of the year is: Rebirth.

It’s been two years of preparation for this moment, and as you all know- Birth is a bloody, sticky experience. We’ve all done it at least once. Some of the girls out there will have to do it again, except from a different angle. But here we go. Some evaluation and planning to come in the next few days here we go.