Posts Tagged ‘director’

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The Passive Participant

February 23, 2010

If you’re trying to get a project off the ground, you are going to encounter a great deal of rejection. Rejection hurts, but it’s a gift. Rejection frees the rejectee from wasting the most precious resource in film: Time. That said, there is nothing more dangerous to any film, or entrepreneurial endeavor, than the passive participant.

Whether you’re laboring to get your production rolling, or rolled out, you’ll find that most people you talk to in the movie business, aren’t in the movie business at all, they just want to be, or want to think they are. Streams of friendly people will tell you they are interested in your work, that they will get actively involved in moving it forward, and that they can have a positive impact on your progress. Unfortunately, more often than not, they aren’t interested, won’t get involved, and/or can’t help you – even if they wanted to.

The truth is, most conversations, meetings, and hoops we jump through to get a movie of any size made, seen, or sold, are dead ends. These time-consuming labyrinths are manned by seemingly well-meaning folks who enjoy meeting interesting, creative people, and sending them on wheel-spinning goosechases such as rewrites, recuts, and hunting expeditions for often unattainable people/organizations/resources, they themselves have no access to, or relationship with.

Why would they do this to us? I’m sure the logic is subjective, but usually it’s because they see themselves as above action, and live vicariously through the radical action of others.

‘Give Me Your Opinion’ versus ‘Give Me This Thing’
It’s a logical impulse to seek the advice of people you see as “further along” in the field to which you aspire. Asking an opinion is a natural icebreaker in any social situation because all people love to be heard. This approach makes sense if you actually want someone’s opinion, but it makes no sense if you simply want something from them. Simply put, “Give me your opinion of this script” is not “How can I get you to invest in this project”. The former puts the ball in their court to read a long document or listen to a pitch, and hopefully come to the conclusion you are fantasizing about. The latter puts the onus on you to own the conversation, and have your investment plan queued up and ready.

While it may seem obnoxious, business people appreciate forthrightness. It’s a common misconception that people of consequence want their asses kissed. They don’t – it’s a waste of time. It’s people of no consequence that want their asses kissed. Those people have all the time in the world to string you along with long, lazy meetings and (un)creative jam sessions that will wear you out and usually decimate any forward motion you once had. Avoid these people, they can only bog you down.

People who have power, on the other hand, do not want to play games. They may or may not opine on your work, but what they really want is for you to come to the point and quickly. Tell them what you have for them, what you want from them, and let them say yes or no. It’s not obnoxious, it’s honest, and it gets you where you’re going quicker (whether that’s further down the road with them, or onto the next pitch).

Asking opinions is usually a waste of time anyway. Most people’s opinions are based on nonsense, irrelevant ideas or logic, or a complete misconception of your work. It’s just plain wrong to think that any amount of experience makes someone an expert on your work. Your work is your work, good or bad. Obviously try to make it good, but some low-level production manager at a middling DTV production company isn’t going to help you make it better. He will tell you what he thinks your work should be, and will usually be wrong.

In the words of Joe Eszterhas, “Whether you’re talking about the studio executive or the actor or the cabdriver, you know, or the gofer or the gaffer …. they all think they’re writers, and they all want to change and rewrite what you’ve done.”

It’s one thing if you’re in a work for hire situation, but for God’s sake, don’t chase your tail on the orders of some stranger you think you need to impress. Particularly someone who isn’t bringing you money, or something else of immediate and quantifiable value. It costs a passive participant nothing to spin your wheels, but it can cost you all your formative years.

Conclusion
You have all the power and resources you need to do exactly what you want to do. Don’t waste time dancing for people that won’t get their hands dirty.

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Making a Plan and Throwing it in the Trash

February 5, 2010

In a formal film production, roles and job expectations are defined according to tradition (ie, line producer, production manager, assistant director, etc). This traditional approach to production is the best way to maintain a proper division of labor, keep morale up, and get the job done fast and right. This approach also requires a crew that is fully staffed and experienced – or at least knowledgeable.

In the independent world, we are generally under-resourced, so we invent all sorts of creative ways to cut corners while (hopefully) maintaining our artistic integrity and vision. When getting into indie territory, it can be a wild west situation where you just have to make the most of what you’ve got. Personnel-wise and everything else-wise.

The one thing you don’t have to skimp on in an indie is preparation. Some would say the resource bottleneck all indies suffer is exactly why you should over-prepare.

Preproduction

Note: Every filmmaker has a different process, and indies require the invention of process, so all I’m doing here is detailing how I’ve done it. There are definitely lots of other, better ways to get this job done.

The more notice I have in planning a shoot, the more time I have to explore every possible opportunity, anticipate any problems, and devise solutions for every element of the production.

When I’m prepping a specific scene, I usually go to the location weeks ahead of time, take pictures and notes, and do scratch blocking with whoever is there. I’ll make return visits with all my key players (camera, stunt, etc), discuss options, and codify a plan, then go home and make shotlists and overheads, and draw storyboards of the action.

This long-lead workflow is fairly idealistic. Once production starts, we don’t always have the luxury of long exploratory discussions, or contemplative afternoons alone. Working on an indie, everything is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Flexibility and real-time imagination are key. It takes the focus and creative energy of everyone involved to turn obstructions into opportunities for strong creative choices.

Even if our location is changed at the last minute, the stunt dog dies, or it starts raining blood, the planning we did, informs and strengthens the choices we improvise.

The martial artist practices form and sequence to seek or impose order to the chaos of violence. Planning a shoot is no different. Like martial arts, creativity under pressure gets easier with experience, but it all stems from preparation.

Even if my plan goes down the tubes, I’m more prepared to get the scene done because I’ve thought through every detail.

Location
For me, the creative parameters start with the physical location itself. This is where I may well reinvent a sequence in total. When it comes to locations, I welcome the opportunity to reinvent a scene or sequence and make the most out of what’s there.

What I find least productive, is trying to squeeze whatever preconceptions I had on the script level, out of an environment that just isn’t the same. If a location is great, but different, I want to make it work – provided, of course, it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the overall story.

Once I’ve thoroughly checked out a location, I’ll bring my DP, producer, stunt coordinator (if applicable), go over everything I’m thinking, get their input, and then document everything.

Shotlists and Overheads
On the functional side of my process, the shotlist and overheads are much more important than any storyboard.

Armed with a shotlist, we go in knowing exactly what shots we need for the edit, as well as any C.Y.A. coverage I can think of (inserts, whips, b-roll). The shotlist details all the coverage, the angle of view and any other notes or special instructions. We use the overhead to map the geography of the set, as well as establishing camera positions for coverage, which correspond to the shots on the list.

If everything goes as planned, we show up and shoot the list, checking it off as we go. If we discover interesting ideas a long the way (and we always do!), we shoot that too.

Storyboards
I meet many aspiring filmmakers who seem to think storyboards are really important, but there are plenty of great films that get made without them (see all Soderbergh films, Spielberg films that don’t involve spaceships or dinosaurs).

That’s not to say storyboards aren’t useful – they absolutely are. They’re just not crucial. In my opinion, if you’re a relatively articulate director, and you have a good dialogue with your DP, you should be fine with an overhead and shotlist.

Many directors would prefer to work with the actors and leave the visual element entirely to the DP. There is no shame in this at all. Personally, I prefer to do most of the work with the actors before shooting, and be more hands-on with the photography on set. It’s really a matter of style and preference.

In my case, I used to board every single shot I could, for the simple reason that I was a control freak. In production I’ve realized that – at least for me – you have to shoot what’s there, not what you think should be there.

I think of my storyboards as a guide to the overall visual style of the film, to show what key shots I think need to be there, or anything I’m specifically looking for. Otherwise, I’m fine trashing them and rolling on what looks good.

Tossing It For The Win

My film, The Local, had over 150 scenes, spanning many locations all over New York, inside of 27 shoot days, on a very modest budget (don’t ask). There were also numerous fights and stunts and countless challenges that can never be fully revealed.

Our plans were constantly snarled by the same logistical problems that plague all films (weather, cops, flakes, illness, bad wiring, etc). It’s a testament to the talent and ingenuity of my team, that we were repeatedly able to repel, outsmart, and ultimately out-create any obstacles the universe threw at us (and have fun doing it).

The film would never have been finished – let alone be any good – had we not prepared every shoot day to the best of our abilities, and from time to time, been willing to toss all our meticulous plans into the garbage and seize the creative opportunities around us.

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Optimism vs “Everything is Shit”

January 11, 2010

This Christmas, someone gave me a DVD called The Secret. I had never heard of it before then, but later learned it was a huge self-help juggernaut book/movie combo that made a popular holiday gift a few years back, particularly from mothers.

The Secret
The Secret posits a formula for material success in life, based on the scientific Law of Attraction.

I would describe the movie as part conspiracy film, and part get-rich-quick infomercial, slathered in motivational self-help rhetoric. It’s jam-packed full of re-enactments, often by fake historic figures, conspiring to keep The Secret, well, secret, so that only the powerful few can prosper, while the rest of humanity languishes in their miserable, unwealthy, yacht-less existences.

According to The Secret, if you visualize the material things you want, you will refocus your brain from the negative scourges of life (debt, your period, your face, your neighbor’s face), to the positive elements you wish you had (mansion, private plane, big TV, etc).

[above] What I thought this was a spoof of The Secret, turns out to be the trailer. Enjoy.

The Secret recommends supplementing your merchandise-centric thinking with something called a Vision Board, a kind of bulletin board of goodies that you spend a designated period of time per day staring at. By literally focusing your eyeballs on the yacht on your Vision Board, over time, you ingrain the presence of that object in your mind (I want the yacht, I want the yacht…) and by doing so, you turn yourself into a cosmic yacht magnet. Thanks to The Law of Attraction you are on an unstoppable collision course with the boat of your dreams!

Vision Board

Vision Board

I had fun watching this The Secret and while it didn’t turn me into a Secret practitioner, it did get me thinking about positive thinking, the impact its had on my work, and how easy it is to forget or dismiss its importance. Thinking positive hasn’t gotten me any yachts so far, but it’s definitely put me on a collision course with getting some movies made, which is pretty much the most important thing in my life.

Culture of Optimism
It used to be that the costs of making a film were prohibitive to all but studios, independents with wealthy friends, or the extremely ingenious among us. Now days, things are different. Because of the digital revolution, particularly the advent of 24p video, and increasing proliferation of low-cost HD acquisition, pretty much anyone with a few thousand bucks can make an indie movie if they want to.

With all the advancements in movie making technology, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that it still takes skill to make a movie anyone wants to watch. The quality of any movie is dictated entirely by the creativity and skills (or lack thereof) the filmmakers bring to the show. The fewer resources available, the more skill and creativity it takes to accomplish the mission.

Independent filmmaking is lousy with pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does the movie get done, let alone be watchable?

Creating any work of art starts with a strong affirmation that it will happen which is, by definition, positive thinking. In a big group project like film, the initial affirmation (re: this is going to happen) has to be powerful and unwavering. This will keep morale high and will bring forward the qualified and experienced personnel needed to get the thing done well.

The logic on this is obvious: Why would a seasoned cinematographer want to work with a less experienced producer or director that is totally down on themselves? Answer: They wouldn’t – and neither would you. It’s no secret that depressives are a drag, which is why they are not carried around on the shoulders of cheering crowds.

Skilled production people have better things to do than provide therapy sessions for the emotionally needy, especially in low/no-pay situations. It is up to you, the leader, to be strong and believe. Your strength and idealism has the power to bring forth everyone and everything you need to make your film happen. Simply establishing a forward-moving, can-do environment in a creative context can make even the most overqualified film practitioner excited to be a part of your project.

Production, Inc.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear terms like ‘corporate culture’. When I talk about corporate culture, I’m not talking about guys in blue buttondowns sitting around conference rooms drinking expensive coffee and saying phrases like “low hanging fruit”. What I’m talking about is any organized group of people that work together, and the behaviors and beliefs therein.

A film production is essentially a corporation. It has layers of bureaucracy that divide up the work in a tactical way to maintain a proper chain of productivity. The culture of that corporation is defined entirely by the standards set by leadership, in terms of the code of conduct, the rate of productivity, and an adherence to a defined, uniform standard of quality.

Setting a cultural standard is leadership. Lead by example, set a standard of affirmative fixation, and things start happening.

Going Negative: Don’t.
Anecdotally speaking, those who fixate on the difficulties of a task, don’t usually complete said task. Even if they do manage to power through, the results of their efforts are usually not excellent. Why? Because starting from a negative place corrupts the purity of the effort.

As a producer, starting from a negative will get you nowhere. Unless there’s a lot of money involved, a negative attitude will stop cold anyone from getting involved. Going negative during a work in progress plants seeds of doubt in the fortitude of your project, its leadership, and will weaken the resolve of even your most loyal followers.

Conversely, maintaining a positive attitude and focusing in on the things that are good, that do work, and the things you do have going for you, opens up avenues of opportunity you didn’t know existed. Why? Because the people around you are not repelled by your shitty attitude. In fact, they might just be inspired. The more inspired people you have around, the more people that can contribute, and open doors for you. I’m not just talking about more people to carry heavy stuff around, I’m talking about people who know other people, have stuff, have money, have time, and have a desire to participate in something inspiring.

On an independent film set, three inspired people can work miracles together. On the other hand, 25 people that don’t care and don’t want to be there will just eat all the food and leave. Not that helpful.

Sitting on a stump whining turns difficulties into impossibilities. Standing up and saying I’m doing this, brings an entire universe of possibilities into focus that you couldn’t see before because your thinking was corrupted with too many nos.

Reality
Things do not always go well, and sometimes no amount of positive thinking can help it. I don’t dispute reality. People go broke, people get sick, buildings collapse, riots break out, Acts of God take thousands of lives at once. All of these things impact our lives and our creative endeavors. It’s no excuse not to make art until you’re dead. To do that, you’ll need to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. If what you’re doing involves other people, you need to believe for them, and then they will believe too. Then, what is simply a belief, becomes a reality.

It helps to remember that our ancestors had it a hell of a lot worse than we do, and still managed to make some pretty damn good art – often under truly oppressive circumstances. How did they do it? They had faith in their vision, faith in their skill, and faith in their ability to acquire the skill necessary to accomplish the work.

Conclusion
Whether you’re making a movie, or a dog house, nothing ever goes as planned. You can look at this fact as a looming nightmare scenario, or as an opportunity to create solutions. I say acknowledge your obstacles and attack them with glee. Be enthusiastic and affirmative about what you’re doing at all times; demand it to happen – with or without a vision board.

Focusing on all the things you don’t have/can’t do/don’t know how to do is no way to get anything done – in film or otherwise. Nobody wants to hear excuses, and nobody likes a naysayer (except maybe another naysayer). What’s worse, is that negative energy will spread through your film company like crabs. Ask anyone that’s ever worked anywhere – once people get into a negative headspace, nobody wants to do anything but complain, leave, or both.

Resolve to acquire the skills, material, and personnel you need to get the work done to the best standard possible. Keep a positive attitude at every turn, no matter what obstructions come before you. Your poise and optimism will inspire the people around you to do the same, and your team will be an unstoppable force.

And buy my book, Muscles in Minutes.


Important Post Script: Fire negative people immediately. They will only screw up your production.

The independent film struggle is rife universal pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does anything get done?
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The Division of Labor vs “Chaos Reigns”

January 1, 2010

In any hierarchical or corporate structure, the division of labor is integral to the successful completion of any project or ongoing operation. The division of labor is defined by the assignment of specific job expectations to specific individuals (not to “teams”, but to actual humans). Good management properly divides labor to insure the best quality outcome.


The self-cannibalizing talking fox from Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST

Worst Practices
Without division of labor, there is no organization. Team members run around, chaotically plugging holes in the dike, or inordinate amounts of work are piled on a few unlucky individuals, while the others spin their wheels on meaningless tasks, or do nothing at all. In either case, the quality of the work suffers, and everyone goes home unhappy.

Some indicators of a poor division of labor in an organization may include the following:

  • People don’t know whose job is whose, including their own.
  • Things frequently don’t get done, or “fall through the cracks”.
  • A key individual leaves the team, and all productivity halts.
  • People are often angry or resentful.
  • People quit a lot.

Every situation is different, and most organizations require at least a modicum – if not a significant amount – of flexibility. People get sick, people drop dead, situations change, the show must go on. That said, even an Act of God is no excuse for an unfair distribution of work. Even the most laissez-faire anarchist knows it’s not fun trying to get a difficult job done in a disorderly environment. Most experienced managers will agree that the morale of an organization’s workforce is absolutely key in maintaining productivity, getting things done right, and preventing attrition of valuable human resources.

The Benevolent Dictatorship
In many ways, making an independent film is exactly the same as running a corporation. Only, its a corporation where everyone works very long hours, for little or no money at all. Such a proposition begs two important questions:

Question 1: Why are people working on my movie if I’m paying them nothing or nearly nothing?

Question 2: If everyone is working for nothing, why would I want to impose a strict management style – won’t they resent me for it and quit?

The simple fact is that in the context of a labor of love such as indie film, the division of labor is your greatest tool in maintaining high morale, because it maintains productivity. Productivity means the movie is getting done, which is why your people are involved in the first place. If the production is inefficient, or gets bogged down in nonsense, the movie stalls, and morale is damaged.

Why are people working on your film for nothing? Because they want the movie to exist. With this in mind, the greatest gift to the independent film cast and crew, is the film’s completion – with as few compromises as possible.

Won’t the crew resent being told what to do and mutiny? Not only will they not resent it, they will appreciate it and work all the harder. Not designating tasks, or allowing individuals to designate their own tasks, is to invite chaos. Chaos can only hurt your chances of getting the film done and done right. People want to know what needs to be done, get it done, and go home feeling they did a good days work. What people don’t want, is to guess what needs to be done, or be obligated to figure it out for themselves. This type of unstructured approach has no place on a film set, where everyone is under the gun at all times.

It’s for this reason, the definition of job expectations and the fair the division of labor should be enforced with an iron fist of benevolent dictatorship. That’s not to say you should be a dick to people – you shouldn’t. But you should not shy away from telling people exactly what to do, what not to do, and make sure they stick to it. Otherwise, you’ll get what you paid for, which probably ranges anywhere from ‘nothing’ to ‘not much’.

Creative Veto
One of the endless pits many independent filmmakers (including myself) fall into, is assuming that every person on set – who is so generously giving of their time and effort – is a creative collaborator. It’s extremely important to recognize that is not the case. To open that door is to open a gateway to hell, where valuable time is wasted fielding an endless cacophony of input from everyone within a 50 foot radius. When every participant is indulged, the result is a kind of Jersey Turnpike mixed drink of seemingly good ideas, stitched together into one giant Frankenstein bad idea. A compromise of good intentions, but still a compromise, and one that will hurt the film.

In most filmmaking situations, the creative process is enabled by three basic vocational tiers, ranging from the purely technical/logistical (line producer, G&E, loader, crafty), to the ‘techno-creative’ (producer, cinematographer, gaffer, art department, stunt coordinator), to the purely creative (writer, director, actor).

Obviously, all the tiers are important to the end result and require immense focus. Every player in the process must understand and acknowledge whether the ultimate purpose of their role is to create or to serve the creative vision (ie, if you are a camera loader, you are not there to direct the actors, you are there to make sure the film is safely loaded into/out of the camera).

Since most people have creative impulses, they will want to share their ideas, if invited to do so. This type of free-for-all is a breeding ground for accidents and oversights, even by the most experienced professionals. If you set up an open-door policy with creative input from a crew full of people that already have jobs to do, you risk splitting their focus and taking away from their primary job expectation, thereby compromising the quality of their work. Don’t allow it. Shut it down if it starts to happen.

Get Enough People and Give Them Jobs
On a classic film set, the producer is essentially the boss hog, who determines what needs to be done to execute on the director’s vision. The assistant director (AD) ‘runs the set’, calling people to set, keeping things moving, and generally facilitating the flow of business. The director is hopefully only dealing with creative decisions, working with his director of photography (DP), actors, and other departments to make the movie all it can be.

On an indie set, you may not have the luxury of an assistant director, line producer and senior producer, but your set will benefit from having at least one individual to act as an intermediary between the director and the crew, who can delegate tasks, monitor the division of work, and make necessary adjustments.

It’s taken me a long time to realize the importance of a crew, and all that it does to make a film better. I have done many jobs myself, through preproduction all the way through post and finishing, that would have been done better by people who were not me. Some may say this was out of necessity, and sometimes it was, but usually it was out of laziness to find the proper person to do the job right. There is no nobility in hard work if the work is for nothing, or makes the final product worse. The will to do many jobs is no excuse for splitting your own focus on whatever your chosen function is. Even the master ninja will get his ass kicked trying to take on ten guys at once. Your film deserves better.

In cases where a crew is comprised of inexperienced people, the producer should figure out what needs to be done, chop it up, and hand out work assignments. If it’s not clear who should do what, this would be a good time to ask the lead crewmembers for input (ie, ‘who needs help?’). Just be sure to keep your hands on the reins and be the one to have the final say on who does what. Maintain the chain of command, or you may find your set is being run by the DP, soundman, or special effects person, as opposed to the assistant director and/or producer.

If there are people present with nothing to do, invent something for them to do, or send them home. If you have people waiting to work (ie, castmembers), try to keep them far away from set. They will only distract your crew, especially if they are attractive.

Conclusion
It’s a fact of life that making an indie is going to be an exercise in compromise, in one form or another. The challenge is to make something creative and beautiful, under these strict parameters of necessity. Dividing labor equally and fairly among your filmmaking cohorts is the first step in making the very most of whatever resources you have available, and ultimately get your project completed, which is what’s most important. Those cast or crewmembers you told to shut up and do their jobs will forgive you at the premiere.