Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Problem with Independent Film.

Let’s be frank, shall we…there are a number of things wrong with indie film that no one seems to want to talk about or mention. I expect these types of things here in Los Angeles, this is where the industry is centered (believe it or not) but what is with the rest of you people? It is the sum of us that creates the industry collectively known as independent film. Therefore it is the sum of us that essentially controls what is interpreted as indie film…or is it?

Let’s begin with my first bitching point; Top Tier Festivals: Now I will be the first one to point out that Sex, Love & Z – Parts has never played a top tier festival, not even a second tier festival for that matter, so you may want to disqualify everything I say from this moment on (ok, enough of the fuckin’ disclaiming) but let’s state the obvious. Sundance, Tribeca, South By Southwest, Telluride, Toronto will all have similarities in their programming. That is not meant to suggest that they copy each other or are collusive in the selection, but to illustrate the fact that there is a homogenization of the “desired” films. Now sure you’re sitting there saying “so what” and “what’s the big deal”…well the big deal is this, how can they all be forward thinking, and seeking groundbreaking filmmaking talent if they are essentially programming the same types of films if not the same actual films.

Now I know you’re already wincing and looking to poke holes in my theory, but here me out. Those of you that research indie film distribution (either traditionally or by visiting the video rental store often) are acutely aware that festival winners rarely do well in their theatrical releases. As a matter of fact any distribution executive will openly tell you that winning an award at a festival doesn’t really amount to much as far as acquisition and distribution is concerned (it actually raises a red flag). That is because festivals are populated by film-lovers, by cinephiles by cineaste’s…all of which who have drastically different sensibilities on film than say your average American filmgoer that’s will to plunk down $12 to see a feature (yeah…that’s what it costs in LA).

But I am digging at something much deeper. We apply to festivals because of the stories of Miramax and bidding wars and coming out parties. Just a casual conversation with a filmmaker on the circuit will quickly turn in the direction of discussion of “Clerks” or “The Blair Witch Project” or “Following”. The problem with this is that those days are over, long over. You can’t just whip something up with your friends over the weekend and think it’s going to launch a film career. Yes, it has happened…and I believe that a few times in this nation’s history that fish have fallen out of the sky hundreds of miles from any body of water…are you going to attempt to feed your family this way?

In my opinion, the only thing the festival circuit can offer you is experience in opening and screening your film and that’s it! I guess it’s possible that you could meet someone and make a deal that leads to your feature being shot. But there are way more festivals than money people and a majority of the people who might be looking for talent can’t stand festivals because the talent level is so bad, so they don’t attend (anything other than a top tier situation).

Which brings me to my second point: Festivals are the problem. The main reason that bad films are produced year after year is that festivals tend to accept them. Now there is a number of reasons why festivals accept bad films (and everyone of them is money) but I’m not really going to go into that. I mean I am sure that it’s not just money-hungry bastards that like feeling like quasi-celebrities (but that’s most of it) I’m sure there is another reason…like they need something to do every year. Let’s call a spade a spade shall we. When you let a film that is out-of-synch or extremely-poorly lit or one that has a clichéd concept in your festival you are just asking for more. The festival circuit has to be the first line of defense in protecting the artform; and yes we need to protect it from dilution by inferior product. This should be the primary purpose of the festival to set the standards and insure them. Of course anyone with a calculator can understand why this is not the case.

Political and projection: Ok, now we are into the real shit. There is an identity that indie film wishes to project about itself. That identity is that film is do-able and approachable to almost anyone. All you need to do is believe in yourself. This is what is inside every book every written about shooting indie films (I ought to know cause I own most of them). It’s horseshit! For starters baking a cake does not a pastry chef make – you feel me! We have lost touch with what it means to be a filmmaker. As much as the book-sellers and the indie producers would like you to believe that this is an approachable vocation…it’s not. Trust me. To be a filmmaker means you have the unique ability to communicate your vision to 10 if not hundreds of people in an attempt to bring this big idea into existence. You have to be able to get people to follow you, you have to be able to get people to give you money…oh yeah, and you have to have a burning (think Towering inferno) desire to get your ideas across in the medium. That does not mean that you “want it” real bad. That’s how you describe your desire to want to penetrate the hot FedEx chick in your neighborhood…not to make films. I am talking about something deeper. I have personally ended 5 relationships because of my film. Five time I heard a shrieking woman tell me that she can’t fuckin’ take my endless analysis of dolly moves and narrative subtext. And five times I told them to “get the fuck out!”. I’ve lost jobs because of filmmaking (“fuck you we are shooting on Saturday…oh really…then I guess I’m fired”). Filmmaking is not a wish or a dream as they would have you believe. This movement to make filmmaking accessible to all is not in our best interests. And before I get the angry responses let me explain myself. The thing that makes the NBA, NFL the Major Leagues special is that they all have restricted entry. I mean if you didn’t play college football at Michigan State or Ohio State or Penn State or any other perennial football powerhouse your chances of getting into the draft are a bit slim, cause you’ve never demonstrated that you could play on the upper level of the sport. What I am driving at is that barriers to entry are a good thing. Most of us will not have successful careers in film. Therefore the more people we can discourage from losing their mother’s house and their father pension, the better.

The festivals tell you the opposite because for them to be successful they need to make filmmaking the new American pastime…and since it’s at least $20 to find out that you suck, it’s a great little racket. Let me ask you this… why do the same types of films get accepted every year? Why is it a 30 min category yet anything over 15 min’s really doesn’t have a shot? Why do stories about little girls make better shorts than stories about adults? Why do so many of the celebrated filmmakers (on the festival circuit) have little or no experience in filmmaking? Why are filmmakers more artistic if they are non-US residents? Why do festival directors tell us that “we just need to believe in ourselves and our stories” when they know that the exact opposite is true?....because filmmaking is big business that’s why. There is a movement to shape the indie atmosphere so that it is more palatable to the Hollywood filmgoer. Oh you doubt me? Well let me ask you this then… why is there such an issue with profanity in indie filmmaking. I mean there are festivals that won’t play you if you have any profanity, there are screening societies that won’t screen you…same thing goes for gore and shocking content (rape scenes et al..) yet, when we get to the feature releases… you can swear and shit all day. Are they going to say that Quentin’s use of profanity and racial epithets underscores his lack of things to say? Of course not, he’s just being real. Now why don’t you shoot something with a lot of profanity in it…and see what type of coverage you get (“juvenile”, “sophomoric”, “has nothing to offer except locker room talk”…do you see the double standard?

Personally if I wanted to shoot family friendly entertainment I’d apply for a job a Nickelodeon!

Mini DV – if you read this blog you are aware that I am no fan of digital. I think that digital allows the untalented and the unmotivated to masquerade as filmmakers. The thing that is cool about film is that it costs entirely too much to fuck around with. You rehearse endlessly, you block your actors and storyboard your shots, cause it’s costing you 29 cents a foot whether it’s a good take or a bad take. Digital has allowed people to shoot ideas, and to play and to experiment. Well experimenting is for writing not shooting. You wouldn’t get on a plane if the pilot wanted to experiment in flight…so why should you sit in a theater under the same circumstances.

But that is not the real issue. The real issues is that there are hundreds if not thousands of serious shooters who shoot on digital. And they find their path is increasingly difficult because due to the digital aesthetic; the assumption is that they are amateurs and unfocused because so many amateurs shoot on digital. It’s an unfortunate reality but it’s true…the more inexperienced and unknowledgeable filmmakers flock to mini-DV… the harder it will be for serious shooters to use the format.

Screenwriting: Ok, in case you haven’t noticed…I am a writer. One of the reasons that this blog has such long entries is because people often try to marginalize myself and my producing partner as just being flashy marketers. Well my average blog is 10,000+ characters (this entry has 25,153 characters if you don’t count spaces)…I am vividly explaining to you that there is no dearth of ideas here at Big Hit Productions.

Sadly, that is not the case in the industry. Everyone is either writing a screenplay or thinking of writing a screenplay. Why is this? Because thanks to people like Syd Field, and Robert McKee and all the other screenwriting guru’s the average American thinks that they can “adopt” the artform. Nothing could be further from the truth. For starters writers are born and not made. Go ahead and get pissed at that comment but that’s the truth. It is not a coincidence that writers suffer from depression and have been/or currently are ousted from the “in-group” in one way or another. You write because there is something lacking in 1st person communication, there is something that causes you to be misunderstood, or overlooked, or not taken seriously. That is where writers come from. The keenness and insight of their written word is inseparable from the lives they have led and their interactions with their parents and their peers. You can’t learn that shit. You either are the real deal or not. Sure, you can take classes and read books till you die of exhaustion…but none of that will give you mojo.

But the problem of writing in film goes deeper. We have been fed a bunch of lies by people who don’t write all that much and don’t shoot what they do write. Yeah, I know you are calling bullshit on me… so I’ll debunk the most popular myths of screenwriting.

1) Writing is rewriting: This is the single greatest lie perpetrated on the contemporary screenwriter. For starters, the reason we write is to practice. So that one day it comes out of your head perfect, and all you have to do is print it. You may not have realized this, but that is what it’s all about; becoming one with your narrative so that it comes out exactly as you intended. We see this in other art forms all the time. Musicians, singers, choreographers and painters all tell us stories of works that “wrote themselves”, that “came out of their heads basically perfect and never changed”…yet this is never happens in screenwriting, why is this? Because you have swallowed a lie that tells you that all scripts need to be refined. Well I have a bit of news for you Skippy; the one thing that this axiom overlooks is that you will become very proficient (technically) at screenwriting. Once you have written about 5 screenplays, you’ll understand enough about the narrative form to make just about anything work. The danger for the contemporary screenwriter is that is will take you months of polishing and rewriting to realize that the problem is not your dialogue, or you set-ups or your pacing…it’s just a shit narrative. You become betrayed by your own artistic prowess. It is for this reason that I don’t do rewrites…that’s correct, I don’t do rewrites. The prequel is a first draft, the feature is a first draft…I don’t do rewrites. That is not meant to indicate that I do not make changes to things I don’t like and want to clarify. But that is related to scenes and sequences. I have never just rewritten an entire script, what’s the point?

2) Make an outline: Jesus fucking Christ is this a waste of fucking time! I’ll put it plain and simple for you – the script that I finish has never been the script that I have intended to write. There are a number of things that you cannot foresee till you are actually writing. Not only do I firmly believe that outlines and treatments are just wasted pages that most likely will cause you to err on the side of “being consistent” than attempting to find the true voice of the script – but it forces you to begin writing with a preconceived idea of what your story is…and if your idea is initially incorrect…then this whole process will yield a script that is far from the real narrative you want to tell and you’ll begin a rewrite to “clarify”.. 3 years later you still don’t have a finished script….get my drift? The writing of a script is a journey into your subconscious and conscious mind…you can’t plan most of it…you have to feel it out and see what works. This is not meant to insinuate that you don’t need a clear idea of what story you are trying to tell; it means that you don’t need to concentrate on the details and the exposition. Set your bullshit detector on high and feel it out. If you have truly vetted your narrative prior to this it won’t be painful; if you haven’t and you begin writing too early in the development process – you are in for a long night (Read: rest of your screenwriting journey)…FYI I tend to kick a narrative around for at least 2-3 years before I attempt to write anything.

3) Writing groups: Look this is going to be hard to swallow, but writers (especially screenwriters) are jealous, bitchy, angry people. I suppose it’s possible that a group of them could help you write the greatest work of your life, but I seriously doubt it. Think of it this way; if Jimi Hendrix was a member of a guitar playing and songwriting group and he comes into the coffee shop one day and he’s like “so I’ve been playing with feedback and making faces when I play, and writing crazy lyrics that are kind of don’t make sense”.. do you think they all encourage him to do more acid and see how far he could take it? Or would they tell him to tone it down and get a chick to front the band? I think you see my point. If you are going to screenwrite you need to assume that you are the hottest thing to happen to screenwriting since 3-holed paper...otherwise you ain’t gonna make it happen.

4) 3 acts structure is dead! There, I said it. Go ahead and get mad and log off this blog….are they gone? …good. Now here is the skinny; they know it too well. There is absolutely no way to surprise a contemporary audience with a 3-act that is linear. It’s just not possible. When the phone suddenly rings in the middle of a scene – Dad is dead. When there are 5 characters in a car arguing as we approach the climax…most of them have to die (car crash/terrorist attack/airborne disease – take your pick). You already know this. When the love interest says to the male protagonist “I have to talk to you” she’s pregnant, or has cancer, or is pregnant and has cancer and is going to forgo chemo so her baby can be healthy. Do I need to continue? And yes I know other act structures… you’ll find a ton of ideas in Film: Language or Language system.

5) Write down your script ideas as them come, piece by piece. This is the one that really sets me off. Ok just going to tell you like it is. There is no need to continually write down the salient aspects of the script you want to write. I know that you are afraid that if you don’t write them down, that you will forget them. Well here is a news flash: you have never forgotten a great narrative in your life. You read/watch them once and can remember nearly every detail…because it’s a great narrative. That’s what makes a narrative great, it’s unforgettable. If you have crib sheets and tons of sticky notes telling you characters motivations, it’s a shitter – trust me.

And for the record, no – I never write a single note, never make a single outline, draft, treatment nor do I carry around a voice recorder to “catch my thoughts”. Motherfucker please! You either got it or you don’t!

6) Books about screenwriting. Look I think education is a good thing. But writing is an art and not a science. If you want to be a better writer, become a better reader. If you want to become a better filmmaker, watch a lot of films and make a lot of films (any length, any budget…they key is to practice). You can’t move the artform by buying books from Amazon and shooting one film on the weekend. But that’s not my real point. My real point is that most “screenwriters” read all the same books. They are inspired by all the same films, they admire all the same directors (and for the record my favorite directors are: Joe Carnahan, Luc Besson, Early Steven Soderbergh (The Limey) and John Hughes (fuck you! I’m in my late 30’s)) and have no real career aspirations other than coke, hookers, SUV’s and money. What’s my motivation you ask? I want to give Generation X their own cinema. If Kevin Smith is the Gen-X filmmaker, then we are all in trouble. Is there not more that Generation X is concerned about other than dick jokes, comic books and New Jersey plotlines? (I went to high school in Jersey – there really isn’t much to talk about after strip malls and movie theaters) Anyway, in my opinion the only books you need to read other than books on film history are books on theory (especially if you are a screenwriter) and off the top of my head I’d say “The End of Cinema as we know it” Edited by Jon Lewis. The more you understand about how narratives communicate, the better narratives you will be able to write. you can tell I’ve thought about this extensively. Screenwriting is our biggest problem because a majority of the people who write scripts are not screenwriters. If the first serious writing you have done in your life is a script (an attempt at a script)…you are not a screenwriter. You are an opportunist who thinks screenwriting us a nice way to make a quick $250K. If you are adapting literature and legendary narratives to the screen, you are not a screenwriter – you are an intellectual thief with no talent who thinks they are clever (I hate adaptations – work adapted to the screen can never move you as well as work written specifically for the screen) – you are not clever. I read a ton of literature (Ayn Rand, George Orwell...that’s my vein) but its primary purpose is to enlighten me to the possibilities of the written word and different narrative structures – not to give me ideas for scenes to write and scripts to “author”. If the narrative has been around for tens if not hundreds of years you don’t have any insight (what you think you’re the first person to think this would look good on the screen?), you just decided to capitalize on it. Have a little respect for writers that were more prolific than you and wrote to greater depths, their works are not fruits for you to pick! If you write according to a “formula” you are not a screenwriter, you are a paint by numbers artists who refuses to improve the artform. That is the duty of any artist, to help the art break new ground and find new audiences – screenwriting formulas are the antithesis of this. You have to think outside the box (actually you have to think “off the table”) to motivate people. They contemporary film audience is inundated with media and images in our society – you have to be better than average just to suck – you feel me?

I saved a little venom for all you poets/novelists/ad copywriters/ radio script writers/ short story writers/ technical writers and magazine and newspaper columnists who feel they can migrate to this narrative form. I doubt it. It takes a great deal of time to understand how to plant ideas, props and possible outcomes in a narrative without being heavy handed and predictable when you also have to walk motherfuckers around a scene and keep the whole thing smooth. More often than not, your proficiency in another writing form creates arrogance that this is just another form that they can master. It’s really painful to watch films that originate from these types of writers who seem unaware that this is a visual medium (they like to shoot people standing around and talking). Personally, I don’t care what you did in radio; the script has demands far overreaching these other forms. Nowhere is dialogue as important as in the cinema. I applaud you for wanting to join the party, but why don’t you stick close to the punch fountain – you might get hurt on the dance floor

7) Marathon writing sessions: Ok, I’m really going to open your eyes here…are you ready? Less is more. Yeah, I know you can’t fucking believe it, but it’s true. The less time you spend physically typing, the more pages you will write. Ok, let me explain it to you ‘cause I know a lot of you went to public school (don’t get mad). If you were to write one page a day, that would translate into three features a year (“do the math son, do the math!”). If you did that for two or three years you’d become one of the most prolific screenwriters of all time. Now I know your creative writing teacher told you that it’s all about the “flow” about locking yourself away in some fucking dungeon and hacking away for hours a day. But let’s do a little inspection of that process. Most of the screenwriters I know (no, I really don’t speak to other writers…they suck!) spend at least 2-3 hrs writing when they write. And the first thing they do is edit what they wrote last time. So they delete pages and rearrange things and then they might write a few pages and then attempt to polish that. This is an endless cycle of typing and then deleting only to type again. There is a better way. If you were to limit yourself to writing at most 45 minutes a day (which I know is like nothing) you’d become really focused. You would just try to set up a scene or to get one characters dialogue correct. You would spend all day thinking about how you are going to utilize this 45 minute session. And let me tell you, when you sit down…it’ll flow out of you. You’ll write 5-7 pages that will stick, because there is a time limit, so you’ll drastically reduce what you are attempting...and focus on just one part of your script on that session…that’s where it’s at. That’s what called “cooking with gas” (natural gas yield a hotter flame). Go ahead and doubt me, but if you spent more time thinking about what you want to write and less time physically writing – you’ll notice that a majority of what you write sticks and isn’t removed during an “edit”.

8) The motivation to become an indie filmmaker: Ok this is going to seem a little weird but hear me out. I firmly believe that a majority of those who call themselves indie filmmakers are not indie filmmakers at all. They are Hollywood filmmakers utilizing indie film to “break through”. Many of you feel that this is ok, that this is what you do. Well I have some news for you. The house that is American Independent film was built long before your arrival and will be here long after your departure. If you call yourself and independent filmmaker then by definition there are things that are more important to you than a 3 picture deal (which is really not in your best interest – but email me if you want clarification Nothing upsets me more than indie filmmakers who break through in the mainstream and then shoot Hollywood garbage. I mean c’mon Sun (I call him Sun cause he shines like one) don’t you have a burning story to tell? Isn’t there something you really want to get off your chest?

9) Short filmmaking: In and of itself short filmmaking is not the problem. The problem is multifaceted. For starters the industry doesn’t really like to take short filmmakers seriously. We are the “warm up” for the real films (Read: features). They have convinced you and me and the general public that a short film should be short (less than 15 min’s). Through the festival selection and programming process they favor films with a small amount of speaking roles and locations and really seem to prefer shorts that are cute and anecdotal yet when it comes to talk of you making a feature they will tell you that your short lacks vision. This is complicated by the fact that on the other side of the equation are people who want to distribute shorts films and make them a money making enterprise.

First of all this arbitrary decision on what a short should be is fuckin’ bullshit. It’s a bunch of Baby Boomers impressing their thoughts, beliefs and desires upon us (directly or indirectly by who they hire/appoint to select films). Oh how they love to talk about being at Sundance in the “good old days” when quality films like “Clerks” and “Sex, Lies & Videotape” were screened. They swear they can assess filmmaking talent rather quickly yet anything that differs from the safe-little girl in peril vein-is the scourge of the earth. Are they really in touch with indie filmmaking if they restrict themselves to the top tier festivals? The films that they love to celebrate wouldn’t stand a chance in this submission environment because it’s so fuckin’ crowded nowadays. Let’s cut to the chase shall we? I have seen no real evidence that the short film circuit prepares filmmakers for features or identifies soon to be impressive feature shooters. This grand experiment is a complete failure. If you aren’t shooting shorts with more than 5 speaking roles, more than 5 locations over more than 5 days…how the fuck can it prepare you for shooting features? What you are practicing is the rigors of making mistakes and recovering from them, of planning intricate shots and leading a cast and crew. Weekend shoots based on PG-13 rated “cute and clever” material is not gonna get it done. As for the other end of the spectrum, do we really need to make short filmmaking as hazardous as feature filmmaking? Do we really want people to have to spend 5-10 years to get the short made because now that there is a viable distribution market standards are higher and so are negative costs? Short filmmaking is the only real way to practice without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why not leave it as such? At the end of the day they hate short subject shooters anyway…so why not leave us the fuck alone.

10) Guerilla shooters: Now I am the last one to ridicule those without money that want to get their shit shot, but there are standards in this industry. Marathon shooting days, unfinished scripts and risking actors well-being is bad for us as an industry. When you trash a location it’s that much harder for the next filmmaker who is willing to pay and to legally get permission, to use the location. Maybe I am being presumptuous; I mean maybe all of you weekend shooters who utilize 28 hr days and no storyboards are really committed (yeah.. committed to wasting peoples time) to the image. Maybe your reckless disregard for the safety of your cast and crew as emphasized by your lack of permits, insurance and bathrooms on the set is all in the name of art. But let me give you my two cents. Filmmaking is the most hedonistic art in existence. You can’t just put all these people out when you’re not sure (or passionate) about what you want to shoot. Not only is it extremely unprofessional, but it reduces the chances of filmmakers who follow you being able to get a decent crew. We are all in this together, asshole! But I am getting off point so I’ll end it with this. Hollywood films look good because they have the money to take their time. You aren’t going to get awe inspiring shots in the first take. I know it seems unnecessary but not looking over your shoulders for mall security or the cops will allow you to really focus on shooting something beautiful…and isn’t that what we all really want?

In closing I’d like to state that you really need to want to do this. You have to want it more than oxygen, or else it won’t get done. You have to develop a style and have some principles. If you don’t find yourself getting angry during filmmaking debates and screaming at people who disagree with you…you aren’t that passionate! If you don’t plan to take over the world with your film, you aren’t that passionate! It’s just that simple.

Listen to me. If you don’t live and breath and eat and shit indie film, THEN GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY ARTFORM! I don’t have to be nice about it, I don’t have to hear you out. I made hella sacrifices to get here. Forgive me if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace your out-of-synch homage film to professional wrestling. Me and Det. Budd make no apologies for anything – and if you don’t like it…I hear ITT Tech. is still accepting students for its summer motherboard assembly course.

The problem with indie film is that is has no direction, is dominated by money-hungry festivals that couldn’t give a fuck about your “career”, is populated by opportunists who think that close is good and that good is ok and that is leveraged by would-be Hollywood shooters who can’t raise the $135MM they need to shoot their Hollywood opus, so they dick around in indie film, ripping of genres and narratives hoping that some cokehead producer will pull his head out of his assistants snatch long enough to give him a 3 picture deal. Get better, get out…or get smashed by the like of me and Det. Budd….the choice is yours!

Oh yeah… and if you have a problem with anything you read, make a comment…I promise to post it (unless it just ridiculously off base and hateful – then I’ll make fun of you in the next blog).

Latah Gator



Blogger Simon said...

Yeah, I agree with most of your opinion on writing. I've been writing for about 10 years (screenplays), completing 2-3 features a year and I've only just written a good one.

Sure, some of them had good parts, and I've had options and near misses in Hollywood, but I always knew they weren't that good. I just hoped I'd run into someone with money smart enough to tell me how to make it good.

It doesn't happen.

I seem to come up with a slightly different method each script. Because last time didn't quite work, so I try something a bit different.

Funny - the last one was written mopstly as you described. A lot of time thinking about the narrative before even considering putting ideas down. I actually had that exact same thought - if I think of a good idea it will stick in my mind so no need to write it down.

Your brain is actually a great filtration system. Wheras when you start outlining things, you somehow lose the mobility. It becomes impossible to get those written down crap ideas out of the way. They drag you down.

And, yeah, I am a total hermit and cannot communicate with "normals".

5:03 AM  
Blogger Det. Budd said...

wanna leave me outa this one? You are gonna get penciled in the eye.

10:54 AM  

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