Archive for the ‘Essays on filmmaking’ Category

Skinny up, Pardner

Posted: January 26, 2011 in screenwriting
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I recently discovered the most amazing, most effective diet in the world. Severe mouth pain. When your mouth hurts bad enough, you look at every morsel of food before you put it in your mouth and you ask yourself, is this worth it? You have to be REALLY hungry for the answer to be yes.

You might only get a couple of bites into something, and the answer will change.  Suddenly and decisively to NO!

And as I looked at a bottle of water and debated taking another painful sip or risking dehydration, I thought, this is like writing.

Or I should say, writing should be more like this.

It’s a bad habit a lot of screenwriters in particular have. Because we know that the dialog is the part of the script that will ultimately get the most attention, because we have heard that producers won’t read anything else, because the dialog might actually come out of someone’s mouth exactly the way we write it, our dialog ends up bloated and fat.

Take for example, the typical love scene. In the script, the boy and the girl gaze into each other’s eyes.


You are the most amazing woman I ever met.


You are also amazing and I love you like a butterfly loves to flutter. Like the moon lives to shine. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to sit near you when you watch football. I want to wake up to you. I want to be two old people walking through the park holding hands.


You are so beautiful. I want our children to look like you. But I’m worried that the terrorists might find us hiding in this cabin. I don’t care if they kill me, but I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.

Yes, this movie is a romantic action film. Of course.

In my real life experience, romantic encounters are all about what isn’t being said. In my experience, some of that internal monologue is internal because I am worried that I might say the wrong thing. So must everyone else. Some of that internal monologue is, “I like him. Does he like me? I don’t want to say anything, I don’t want him to feel pressured. Maybe I could say this…NO! That sounds desperate, even in my head. Ok, maybe I’ll just smile. Yeah. Smiling. There’s the ticket.” Also, to get a guy to even admit he has emotions requires supernatural forces.

The fact is that real people don’t say everything they think. And those that do are always getting into fights and then they have to go back and apologize for what they said or explain that they didn’t mean it how the words seemed to be, but this other, more acceptable way.

Movie dialog is of course, not real speech. It is heightened speech. But it could benefit from the things that are NOT said as much as the things that are.

What if I wrote a love scene that went more like this:





(after a long moment of silence) I guess yeah.



He busies himself shaking out a blanket and draping it around her shoulder. He is very careful to get it securely around her.





They look into each other’s eyes.  His hands are still on her shoulders.


It’s cold.



They lean closer together.



(he clears his throat)

It must be a cold front.

They kiss.

See? Wasn’t that nice? Fewer words, more space for atmosphere and feeling. It’s ok to leave your audience and your characters and yourself not quite stuffed to the gills with words.

Also, I know that I failed to use proper screenplay formatting. The blog doesn’t have the tools to do it, and I don’t have the time to count spaces, so deal with it. You knew what I meant, anyhow.


Cowboys and Indians

Posted: December 15, 2010 in screenwriting
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Novels vs. Screenplays

When I was in grad school, my classmates had a bad habit. If they knew someone had ever written a screenplay, they would look at a story and say, “This was written like a screenplay.” What they usually meant was, “This doesn’t have a lot of detail.” Because they all assumed screenplays lack detail.

It was a mistake because we were all so new in our careers that the kind of habitual writing markers of novelists and screenwriters had yet to be ingrained in any of us. And because screenplays can sometimes be different from fiction only in the formatting. And because I say so.

So what is the difference? Why can’t every book be made directly into a movie?

Because I write both, I can tell you the difference to me.

In writing novels, an author has access to the entire inner workings of every character to cross the page, and the author chooses who to reveal. The author can choose a point of view that restricts access. HOWEVER, an author can’t hide thought that fall into the point of view she has chosen. You can’t write from the first person perspective of a homicidal maniac, and just leave out his thoughts of “Kill. Kill. Kill.” It is dishonest, and your reader will feel tricked.

In a screenplay, however, you have no ability to express a characters thoughts, unless you go crazy Avant Garde and have a running voiceover of thoughts. Even movies that claim mind reading characters are still terribly selective about the mind reading they do. You’re control over point of view is much more limited in screenwriting. In a novel, I can tell you what a character thinks is happening. In a screenplay, not so much.

In a screenplay, you can write in directions for the actor to reveal the character’s thoughts, but it is usually along the lines of an action. Sam frowns. Sam frowns angrily. Sam slams the door shut in a fury. But that script passes into other hands and some mopey actor frowns wistfully instead, and the director likes it, and suddenly, the entire thinking of that character is altered, even if the actions stay the same.

So even if you made your best effort to write a character who reveals their thoughts, ultimately, you don’t have much control over it. Better to focus on actions and dialogue, the things you have better control over. The actor changes the nature of the frown, that’s just how it goes. He changes a punch in the face to stabbing with a broken bottle, and that is a rewrite. Which they can do, too.

I’m not so much concerned about the ultimate lack of control most screenwriters deal with because I don’t write for hire. Which sounds like a self-aggrandizing way of saying I’ve never sold a screenplay. But I’m also not trying to. I write screenplays so that I can direct them. But also, I consider the interpretations of the actor to be a contribution, not a detraction. Most of the time.

When I write screenplays, I leave space for the actor to interpret. I expect to collaborate. When I write novels, I try to fill those spaces with nuance and implications, because I am responsible for everything.


It is a part of every filmmaker’s life. And if it isn’t, I don’t want to know. It’s a part of mine. A big, monstrous, energy sapping part.

Discouragement can come from any step in the process. Discouragement can come when fund raising doesn’t go how you hoped. Or when production suffers major setbacks, or if Post takes FOREVER, or when you show it, audiences don’t respond how you hoped, or you show and there is no audience.

Things aren’t going to go how you planned. And if you plan for things to not go how you planned, things will find a new, unexpected way to go not how you planned. It’s a buckin’ bronco ride, and the winner is the person who hangs on till the end.

But you might get kicked in the face a few dozen times along the way.

So today I want to talk about three ways to cope with film making discouragement.

  1. Have someone who thinks you are great.

When you get out there, you are going to run in to a lot of people who don’t care if you are alive.

Some people respond by saying, “Oh, yeah! Then I will care twice as much!” That just makes you arrogant. And it doesn’t help, unless you’d rather be hated than anonymous. Then it’s perfect.

A better way to swallow all the “I don’t care” the world throws at you is to have someone in your life who thinks you are pretty swell. Not a swell filmmaker. Not a sycophant or a fan. Someone who thinks you are swell person. A friend or a partner. Someone who you can spend time with and get all your person-ness back from the beast.

  1. Only control what you can control.

Making a movie is all encompassing. There’s the long shooting days, the never ending needs of this that and the other. And you can get all encompassed into things you can’t control or contribute to. Sitting behind the sound engineer while he works isn’t good for you and it isn’t good for him.

So say the serenity prayer now and mean it, before you get yourself so messed up you end up in AA. Lots of film types end up with addictions. I’d guess this is why.

  1. Get away for a while.

This isn’t always possible, when you have deadlines or a bunch of money is on the line, but say you are doing something low budget, and the timetable is as long as it takes to get it done cheap, and you’ve been concentrating on it for over a year. Do you know what that does to a person? Craziness is what it does.

If there is no deadline, don’t kill yourself over it. Yes, you want it done as fast as possible, so that the rewards of having done it can replace the pains of having to do it, already, but if you wear yourself emotionally thin, will it ever get done at all?

Take a break. Time away helps you collect enthusiasm, and when you run out of money, enthusiasm is the only fuel left.


I believe that the laws of drinking apply to movie watching. If you are doing it alone, if you do it all the time, if you must always be doing it, if you do it before noon, you are in serious trouble, mister.

But the maker of cell phones, and by extension, people of the world, feel differently. They feel that you should always watch movies. Do you have to wait in line at the bank? Movie! During your kid’s soccer practice? Movie! Sitting in traffic? Movie! Eating in a restaurant? Movie! Going to the bathroom? Movie!

I myself don’t lament the time I have wasted on toilets movie free. But maybe I just hate change, and should crawl back under the rock I came from.

Why would you do this to yourself?

When I watch a movie, I do it to be immersed in a fantasy world, where I can vicariously live other lives, see through different eyes, or watch a really cool fight scene between a ten-year-old girl and twenty mob guys. I don’t know how you can do that on a two inch screen. I don’t know why you would want to.

I don’t know how the HTC Surround can claim to have surround sound in a phone. Because the definition of surround sound, I don’t know, might have something to do with the speakers SURROUNDING you. This is the equivalent of paint claiming to be hi def. You have to ignore the meaning of the word to do it, and marketing people are happy to ignore the meanings of words. Like extreme breakfast cereal.

But to me, the worst part is the fear of a few minutes of life passing without diversion. I love watching movies, but they aren’t life. And unlike life, they aren’t going anywhere. I can wait to see Spiderman 3 (forever, or for the sake of argument) until the end of a long day, when I want to relax. Maybe after a good meal, with popcorn I made with an air popper (the best way to make popcorn), a blanket, and a glass of cranberry juice.

Preferably, not alone.

Recently, Jessica Alba did an interview, and one of the leaked quotes got all the screenwriters in a tizzy. Something about “good” actors never follow scripts, they just make up whatever they want to say. I’m not here to help spread Jessica Alba’s “ideas.” If you care enough to look it up yourself, you can bask in her unending brilliance.


My friend sent me this link to one screenwriter’s response. It’s a calm assessment of her assumptions. A pleasant read. Short.

If this is a real quote, it is arrogant and dismissive of the work of screenwriters, but it is nothing new, and in fact, a typical Hollywood attitude towards screenwriting.

In Frank Capra’s autobiography ( a tremendously interesting book) his wife says that she always recognizes the screenwriters because they are all so unhappy.

Maybe because they are bitter about their place in the pecking order. Maybe because everyone is mean to them all the time. But screenwriting is hugely valuable to movie making.

Do you know how many times people have come to me and said, “I have a great idea for a movie,” and the even more idiotic, “You can have it for free. I just want to see it get made.”

Hey, everybody. Guess what? Ideas are worthless. Even the government knows that; you can’t copyright an idea. What is valuable is the effort and skill that turns an idea into something. And not everyone can do that well, though directors and actors and producers always think they can without any practice or training.

One last thought, again related to the great Frank Capra. There is a story (apocryphal) that Frank, in an interview, was waxing poetic about the Capra touch and how he made hit movies, and other general statements of arrogance. When his long time screenwriter, Robert Riskin, read the interview, he sent Frank a present.

Frank received his script sized package and eagerly tore it open to find 120 blank pages and a note that read, “Put the  famous Capra touch on that!”

It’s that time again, time for the Outlaw to get her hate on. And what better target than 3D.

From the recent craze for 3D movies, you  might think that they just invented the technology, but those of us who have been to Disney World or know anything about film history know that 3D has been around a while. A long while. It was invented back in the 1950s, as part of a larger push to defeat television with spectacle, but it died out for the same reasons that it bugs me today.

It adds nothing.

You have to wear stupid plastic glasses to see it.

It jacks up production costs. It’s part of the studios trying to put filmmaking back out of the financial reach of independents so that they never have to face the fact that independents  are capable of telling stories as well, if not better, than studios do.

It jacks up ticket prices.

It is one more special effect to use instead of plot or character. It follows in a long line of gimmicks Hollywood has used to try and convince people to see movies that aren’t very good,  going back to Technicolor (not so bad) and Smell-o-Vision (terrible. Awful. The absolute worst)

Studio heads hold something shiny in front of an audience and saying, “Ooo, isn’t this neat? So pretty!” And they expect us to follow suit. The fact that many people do makes me hate 3D because it proves how stupid people are.

They are slapping it on every movie with the slightest bit of action. Case in point, Clash of the Titans. Which they made first with out 3D, and apparently, they decided that 3D changes nothing.

And now they are making 3D TV’s, so you can also be ripped off in your own home.

I do not hate 3D, and neither should you, at least, not as much, when it is done with 3D animation, mostly because the technology of 3D animation matches well with 3D projection. You can tell because they both have 3D in their names. But then I hate it again when I think of making a five year old pay $15 to see a movie. It is just wrong.

The best place for 3D is Disney World, where you can love 3D in Michael Jackson’s long running Captain EO, because it is awesome, or the Muppets theater, which also blows on you and pokes you in the back and is, in every way, an experience, like a ride, and not a story, like a film. It’s neat to watch a bug fly out of the screen or have the end of a stick look ready to tap you on the nose, but these are not things we were missing from regular movies. Not the way we were missing sound and color. The last time I checked, The Curious Case of the Fly and the Pokey Sticks wasn’t languishing in post due to technological limitations.

3D is a novelty, like the holographic images they used to sell, but no longer do, because they were just a useless fad. Cool to look at. But also useless.

Avatar is to blame for this current rash of 3D films, specifically, the chu-ching that studio heads hear when Avatar is mentioned.  And they are planning to shoot Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in 3D, which would be successful even if it were shot on old grocery bags, so that will keep the salivating going for a while longer. But I hate it. And you should, too.

They never televise the Academy Awards for best makeup or best sound design. But these invisible people are essential to the making of a good movie.

Jill, Make Up Super Hero

The makeup artist on set has several important functions. They make people look pretty. This is important not only because actors are vain, but also because we have this ridiculous thing we do in film called an extreme close up, which is the equivalent of standing three inches away from someone with a magnifying glass. People were never meant to be seen in such a way, and no one looks good that way. The Makeup Artist’s magic hides all the uneven skin monsters so close ups don’t burn our eyes with their horror.

Makeup artists do continuity. When we shoot one scene over three days, the makeup artists is part of the team that makes it look like one day. When an actor is supposed to become gradually more tired over the course of a movie, and we don’t shoot anything in order, the makeup artists tracks it and makes it happen. When Rocky Balboa gets his face beaten to a pulp in the first Rocky, that was all the work of some really awesome makeup artists.

They do special effects. Like faces beaten to a pulp. Burns. Bruises. Zombies. Prosthetics. It is a wide variety of difficult tasks, and they deserve to get their awards in prime time.

Jill Ekkawi did the make up for us The Making of Iridium Consequence. We only got to use her a few days, so we packed some essential scenes into the time she was available. Specifically, we had an alien army that had to be made up. Jill came up with the designs and then implemented them identically several times, weeks apart. And because our aliens were all nine and ten years old, she also repaired smudges and marks that come from little girls accidentally rubbing their made up faces.

Jill is an incredibly creative make up professional. She’s worked on other films, and she’s done wedding make up, which requires a huge amount of courage.

Evil alien. Scary!

Lately, she’s done a number of photo shoots, and everything she does is terrific.

What impresses me the most about Jill is how make up is something she genuinely loves to do.  She loves to buy make up, she loves to talk about make up, and she loves to do make up. But what she really loves to do is special effects make up, which is a specialized  discipline that not every make up artist is proficient in. She loves to create realistic wounds and boils and other gross things. And she is very, very good at it.

Jill did this.

Halloween is coming up, which is like Christmas for Jill. She spends hours on her horrific creations, and I promise you, what she does to people takes Halloween to an all new level. When her kids come to your door, you don’t say, “How cute!” You say, “Oh, sweet lord, what happened to you?”

I am fortunate to have worked with Jill, and more fortunate to have her for a friend. Demand for her talents is growing all over Florida, but she likes to stay close to home and her kids. I will be able to get her for my next project. Probably. Did I mention we are friends? Outlaws love to be friends with super talented people.