Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE HOBBIT was disappointing. It had all the spectacle you could possibly want. It had a quest, and evil, battles, a wizard, and a decent, ordinary man caught up in the middle.

It left us unmoved. It's a bad sign when you see a movie in the middle of the day and,  at six, you're thinking, "Boy, I'd really like to see a movie."

I feel that its tone does not match its story. The book is a light entertainment. It has lots of humor. There is never any really strong reason why Bilbo Baggins needs to go on an adventure, but he does, and many surprising and amusing things happen to him.

The tone Peter Jackson takes in THE HOBBIT is the epic tone of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But that worked for LOTR. That was about a decent man who, very much against his will, undertakes a terrifying journey, because the fate of the world hangs on it, and he is the only one who can do it. (All, right, and his handyman.)

Bilbo does not need to go on an adventure in THE HOBBIT, and the only thing that hangs in the balance is whether some amusing dwarves will get their mountain of gold back.

Jackson tries to inject meaning into the movie. Gandalf has an ulterior motive for wanting Smaug taken out. There are rumblings of a Dark Power. And, as the story progresses, Bilbo develops an affection for the dwarves and seems to reach some desire to man up for their sakes. But it never adds up -- it can never add up -- to THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

It does not help that Jackson is making multiple movies out of what is not a terribly dense book. Had he been willing to cut a bit of story, he could have made one really great entertainment out of the book; but he wanted to make two movies. So he finds himself adding events I can't remember in the book, such as a brief interlude starring Radagast the Brown.

Overall, the movie feels less like Peter Jackson needed to tell a story, and more like he wanted to hang out in Middle Earth some more.

I wonder what Guillermo del Toro would have done with it?

We actually saw the movie in IMAX 3D. Waste of money. The primary effect of the 3D was to remind me, whenever I cocked my head, that I had to keep my head absolutely vertical. I've never appreciated the need for 3D. Somehow the world feels less 3D in a 3D movie, because the 3D keeps drawing attention to itself. Whereas in a 2D movie, I have no trouble interpreting perspective, and focus, and the relative haziness of things in the distance. I

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

We watched TINY FURNITURE, Lena Dunham's debut feature. Like her HBO series GIRLS, it is a rawly honest portrait of a 22-year-old college graduate with no direction and few redeeming characteristics. It is often funny, in a sort of horrifyingly accurate way.

I'm always suspicious when I hear that someone shot a feature for $9,000 (as Robert Rodriguez did EL MARIACHI) or $2,000; sometimes I think people deflate their budget to impress people. In this case, $50,000 seems about right.

How does she do it for $50K? She stars herself, first of all, and her mother, and her sister. They may not be astounding actors, but they're playing characters close to themselves. Dunham knew what her actors were capable of. I gather the other actors were non-union. That saves money.

Second, she's shooting in her parents' fabulous loft, and a few other locations. It helps when your parents have a fabulous loft; if they do, try to figure out what you can shoot there.

But it's really in her shooting style that she saves herself time. Dunham uses very little coverage. Many dialog scenes are covered in only one wide two-shot; others are shot in two closeups.

That means there were very few setups. Each time you move the camera to a new setup, your director of photography (DP or DOP) will need to relight. You will need to reconsider the frame. Possibly redress the set.

Dunham's camera rarely pans or tilts. When the camera follows actors during a scene, they can miss their marks. When they miss their marks, you've blown that take. That eats time on a set.

There are no dolly moves. Setting up dolly track really eats time. Your AD and DP will tell you it's just ten minutes to lay down track, but it never feels like that on the set. And then once the camera is moving on a dolly, making sure the actors sync up with the dolly is a job for professional grips, and they'll need a few takes to get it right. Moreover, if the camera is moving, the lighting has to work for every angle the camera sees along its trajectory. More time.

I bet the shooting schedule wasn't that long.

If you keep the camera pointed in one direction and never see the reverse angle, you can shoot a crowded party scene, as Dunham does, with four or five extras.

Dunham's approach works pretty well for a low-key comedy of manners in which people talk in apartments and occasionally on empty city streets. It wouldn't have worked, obviously, for a movie with a lot of run and jump.

It wouldn't have worked for a searing drama, either. Dunham's actors rarely need to express a deep or complex emotion. If they did, they might not have been able to carry it off. You need skilled actors for that. (SAG and ACTRA will give you good rates if you're shooting low budget, so don't rule out pro actors.)

When you're thinking about your debut feature, you're probably thinking low budget. Think about what resources you already have. Think about the kind of story you can shoot well with those resources. Don't shoot something you can't shoot well. Marry your story to your assets. That's what Dunham did on this picture, and hey! she's got her own HBO series now.

What could you shoot for $50,000?

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Monday, December 17, 2012

I've been going through the footage we shot last week for my short film. Overall I'm thrilled. Lovely photography, two thrilling performances from our two actors. And we came in on time and under budget.

But, you know, there are a couple of things I wish we might have done differently...

...two things I had misgivings about during the shoot, and didn't kick and scream enough about, because we did not have a lot of spare time, and I was focusing on what I was focusing on, and I'd already mentioned the issues a few times.

Now, of course, I wish I'd kicked and screamed a bit more.

And it's my fault, as the director, for not making those things priorities.

Thing is, if you a decent, reasonable person, you have learned not to throw a tantrum when you don't get your own way. You are used to compromising.

It's something you have to unlearn to some extent as a director. No, I want it the way I want it, damn it!

Of course many directors are famous for being uncompromising asshats. They kick and scream and throw tantrums. Just because, as a director, you can be a jerk, doesn't mean you should be a jerk.

But, at the same time, you have to learn to be a bit of a jerk. Because no one is going to be a jerk for you. 

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Just finished shooting my latest short, ROLE PLAY. My d.p. showed me this snazzy website, which tells you where the sun rises and sets, as well as times for golden hour, and the various shades of twilight, for any latitude and longitude and any day of the year.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Dan O'Bannon was known for his work on DARK STAR, ALIEN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and TOTAL RECALL. Not a bad run for a science fiction screenwriter. Over the course of 35 years, he also wrote a book about screenwriting, which is now coming out a few years after his death.

(That alone is impressive, because these days publishers seem primarily interested in books only if the author will be out there beating the drum for his book. An author needs a "platform." )

It's a little hard for me to critique a screenwriting how-to book. If the author is saying sensible things, he's saying things that most professional screenwriters know, although we probably all crystallize the rules in our own way. I've got my own book and my own approach. And it's hard for me to remember what I didn't know when I was just learning how to do this.

But I did enjoy DAN O'BANNON'S GUIDE TO SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE. I like that he doesn't just analyze screenplays that hew to traditional three-act screenplay structure and ought to work. He also looks at screenplays (and plays) that have other structures (like Shakespeare's 5 acts). And he looks at movies that have messy stories that ought not to work, and yet did very well -- for example DUMB AND DUMBER.

He has an interesting analysis of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA: what is the story actually about, amid all the swirling themes and conflicts.

He has another interesting analysis of PSYCHO, which famously breaks the rules by changing main characters -- and plots -- midway through. It shouldn't work, and yet, it's a classic.

I can't say that the book told me anything that I didn't know at some level. But an odd thing happened while I was reading it. I realized a pair of fairly serious flaws in a feature I was writing. I had given my hero a series of lucky breaks in the third act, when all the breaks should normally be going against her. I had also made the confrontation with the Big Bad the second-to-last set piece, when it needed to be the last.

(I was trying to save a Big Surprise for last. But you should probably never sacrifice drama for the sake of a surprise.)

It was an odd thing, because I know you should never give your hero a lucky break after the first act, and I'm not even sure Dan O'Bannon says that in his book. And he doesn't talk about drama vs. surprise. But just following his line of thinking about the movies he was dissecting got my brain working in ways that it had not been working, and I came to grip with two structural flaws that my readers and pitchees had not caught.

Any book that does that is worth a read.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Q. College is tearfully expensive, and the school you emphasize is the best funnel into the entertainment industry (USC) is one of the most expensive of them all; to me, it is prohibitively so. Realistically, the only schools within my family's means are smaller state schools, the best of which is still isolated from any hub of film or television. 
Is it more valuable to spend four years getting an affordable education in a little-going-on city and graduating with relatively low debt, or taking the risk of striking it out West and trying to break in with a high school diploma and a winning smile? 
Both routes have taken people to success, and both have led others to failure.

I would hate to tell anyone to skip college and just try to break into the film biz. College gives you a lot of skills you need for life, not just showbiz. Whether you're a writer or a producer or a director, you'll need to express yourself clearly, and organize your thoughts, and plan ahead, and research, and these are the basic skills you get in college.  After you have a college degree is not too late to move to LA, and you'll need one to get a job as a producer's or agent's assistant.

At any state school, you'll be able to make films. Hell, anyone with an iPhone and a computer can make films now. If you make a couple of shorts every semester, and put them on YouTube, and see which get the hits (ignore the idiot comments, just check the hit counter), you'll learn a huge amount about filmmaking. Just find the other guys who also want to make movies, and make movies.

The only person I would tell to move to LA without a college degree is an actor. No actor can afford to burn the last of their teen years in Peoria. By the time you get to LA with your college degree, other actors your age have built up solid resumes. You've got college theater credits. They've got TV credits.

One compromise would be to move to LA, establish residency (I think it's 6 months?), and then go to UCLA at the in-state tuition rate, which is hella cheaper than USC, even though it is not exactly free either.

Or, do the same for City College of New York. Or the University of Texas at Austin.

It is unquestionably better to put down roots in a filmmaking hub. However, if that's not an option, try to wind up in a major city with a strong arts community, and hopefully a theater community to pull actors from. San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, Seattle, Boston, Nashville, Chicago, Philly, Miami: surely one of these has a college you can afford?

(Almost all of these are port cities. Make of that what you will.)

By the way, USC has a top MFA program, but I would not particularly recommend anyone go there undergrad for the sake of filmmaking. For that matter, I don't think anyone needs a college degree in filmmaking, or indeed, any degree in filmmaking. The city you're in is the thing, and the arts community, and then just making films. Film programs give you access to free equipment, and fellow students to work with you, and feedback from professors, and they get your parents off your back about the huge amount of time you're spending making movies. But they are not necessary. Just go and make stuff.

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