I had a great time talking with the Atlanta Film Chat podcast this week! We had a really fun conversation talking about Uncommon Law, writing, the struggles of making a film without a budget, my love for romantic comedies & Japanese RPGs, and more. Please download & give it a listen!

When you think of an “indie film” you don’t typically think of a romantic comedy. The genre gets derided as being formulaic and unimaginative. However, filmmakers like this week’s guest Brian Work disagree and only want to make the films they want to make.

Link: http://www.cinematlmagazine.com/cinematl-reel-ga/2015/11/15/atlanta-film-chat-episode-78-writer-director-brian-work-uncommon-law

I went down to the Atlanta Film Festival today for the “Screenwriting for a Living” discussion as part of the Coffeehouse Conversations series. The guests were Robert Orr (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Tom Luse, and Ray McKinnon (Oscar winning VSU alum who came to speak at the school a few years ago.) It was fun and really informative. Here are some of the notes I took:

Writing Process

  • Read screenplays of movies you’ve never seen, and then watch the movie to see how it plays out. If you read the script for a movie you’ve seen, you’ll only be seeing it played out in your head as you saw it on screen.
  • The best education is experience. You can only learn to be a writer from writing; you can only learn to direct from directing. Education doesn’t translate into jobs. If you’re going to film school, do it for technical knowledge (editing, cinematography, etc.) or go to USC for the connections.
  • 120 pages used to be industry standard for a spec. Now, they’re looking for 100 pages, and maybe even 90. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.
  • You need far less dialogue than you think.
  • Cut all small talk and entrances. You don’t need them. Get in late, get out early.
  • Sometimes you write a cool action sequence. Sometimes you just write “They fight.”
  • Loglines are essential. You will not be read without an interesting logline that clearly states the concept.
  • After you write a draft, let it sit. Not just for a few days; go work on something else. When you come back to it, try to be not just objective, but Machiavellian with it. See what you can cut and make more concise. That scene you used to be in love with may actually suck and not need to be in there at all.
  • When you get writer’s block, write. Even if it’s junk, write.
  • Paraphrasing David Mamet: When you’re not feeling a scene and don’t feel motivation to write, work on structure. When you feel the creative juices flowing, get as much of it down on paper as you possibly can, and to hell with structure.
  • Write out whatever cool ideas you have in the descriptions of the action. It may not make the cut (never write camera angles), but it may make it read better. Just don’t go crazy with it.
  • Don’t avoid writing something because you don’t think it’s sellable. It may not be. But if it’s well written, it may open up a door to script doctoring something.
  • When you’re rewriting someone else’s script that’s already in development, it’s less about a creative “I’ve got a cool idea” and more about logistics (this scene has to be shot on this day, with these people, with what is already available.)
  • Your first script will be bad & probably won’t be salvageable. Don’t let that discourage you. Keep at it. Persistence is the key. The coverage of Robert Orr’s first screenplay said “Never accept anything by this writer ever again.” If you don’t keep writing, you’ll never get better.

The Business Side

  • Most studios now are looking for a package (a spec script that comes attached with an actor or director.)
  • The spec market is doing better than it was. It’s still not as strong as it was in the early 90’s, but it’s good. Recently, the movie Abduction was sold for $2 million with Taylor Lautner attached to star.
  • There are only about 50 really bankable actors in Hollywood. If you can get one of them interested & attached to your script, you have a much better chance of selling it.
  • Read “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” by Josh Olson (A History of Violence). Very good article for beginning screenwriters.
  • A screenwriting competition won’t get your script produced, but it could potentially give you some name recognition.
  • Don’t pay people to give you coverage on your script & assume that any producer will read their coverage; they won’t. Maybe do it for the feedback, but don’t expect that it will get you an in anywhere.
  • Producers are looking for things that are currently selling. You may have written a great period horror film, but period horror films aren’t selling.
  • The young male demographic has been written off by a lot of producers as being too distracted by video games & porn. There is much more focus on the young female demographic now.
  • If you want to write an adaptation, you have to be able to pitch exactly how you play to do it, right down to which pages in the book translate to which pages in the script.
  • It is easier to sell a script that can be made for less money.
  • Producing your own work can help you get noticed. Film is a visual medium, so showing someone a five minute clip (not trailer) from something you’ve done is a great calling card.
  • When producing & asking for money, have a legit budget, even if it costs thousands to have it professionally done. Know exactly how much money you need & why you need it.
  • Don’t go to LA until you have at least 3 good scripts written, and several more in your head. They will always ask “What else are you working on?”

While preparing to write my current screenplay, Once Bit, I watched a lot of other movies in the Domestic Monster in the House genre (Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, The Cable Guy, etc.) However, now that I’m actually in the thick of it, one thing became apparent to me: It’s difficult for me to write something as purely horror or thriller. I always end up throwing humor in there. In the case of something like this, it’s not that I’m turning it into a comedy, it’s just that I’m keeping it somewhat light, at least at the beginning. I assume it goes back to the fact that I’m also a comedian, but beyond that my favorite movies & TV shows are the ones that don’t stick purely into one genre. Joss Whedon is my hero, in part because he is so good at making you be tense in your seat one minute, laughing your ass off the next, close to tears moments later, and then cheering like crazy. To me, that’s entertainment. It’s a roller coaster ride, and I absolutely love it.

Back to my point. As I started writing, I realized that the beginning of my script bore a lot of resemblance to the first act of a romantic comedy. And that makes sense, because much of my story is the nightmare version of the “boy meets girl” situation. But what had me worried was that the tone was also more akin to a romantic comedy than a thriller. On the one hand, I kinda like this juxtaposition, but I was questioning whether or not it could work. Then I remembered a film that I felt did this quite well: Red Eye.

If you didn’t know that it was directed by Wes Craven and hadn’t seen any trailers for it, you might start off thinking you were watching a romantic comedy. It’s funny, it’s cute, and there’s some awesome chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. It’s not until the Break Into Two that the shit really hits the fan and we see exactly what kind of world we’re in. I found that this mirrored my intentions with Once Bit, so I decided to rewatch the movie a couple times and better analyze its structure, using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2) from “Save the Cat.”

Movie: Red Eye (2005)
Genre: Dude With a Problem
Writer: Carl Ellsworth
Director: Wes Craven
Logline: Terrified of flying, Lisa reluctantly hops a red-eye flight bound for Miami and buckles up for a bumpy ride. But her phobia morphs into terror when she learns that a fellow passenger has plans to murder the deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

  1. Opening Image (1): Lisa (Rachel McAdams) rushes to make her plane. She is organized, all business, and compassionate, bailing out Cynthia (Jayma Mays) from a pair of rude customers.
  2. Theme Stated (5): Lisa’s father (Brian Cox) asks her if she’s alright. He worries about her, and so should we.
  3. Set-Up (1-10): Lisa multitasks, is on top of everything, a people pleaser, & a daddy’s girl, but she is a complete loner. Her plane has been delayed, & the passengers are on edge. We are introduced to most of the key passengers, including Jackson (Cillian Murphy) who helps her deal with an asshole passenger.
  4. Catalyst (11): After changing due to a run-in with an iced mocha (where we see her scar from being attacked years prior), she sees Jackson waiting in the TexMex lounge, and decides to talk to him while they wait.
  5. Debate (11-24): Will she give this guy a chance? She’s still not sure. Although she opens up about certain things (her grandmother’s passing), she still lies about what drink she orders. When they board the plane, Lisa finds that Jackson is seated next to her. Her fear of flying is alleviated by Jackson asking questions. She believes it is to distract her, but he insists it is just to keep the focus on her & her father.
  6. Break into Two (24): Jackson tells Lisa that he is behind assassinations, and his current target is Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), a guest at her hotel. He tells her that he has a man stationed outside her father’s house, and if she doesn’t have Keefe moved to a new room, he’ll have her father killed.
  7. B Story (30): The love story is the relationship between Lisa and her father, where we see to what lengths she will go to protect him.
  8. Fun and Games (30-42): Tension mounts on the plane as Jackson continues to intimidate Lisa, & Lisa tries to get a message out for help. Lisa tries to escape his grasp, writing a note in a book for another passenger, and by pretending the phone is still working after it cuts out; at each turn, Jackson catches on to her.
  9. Midpoint (42): Lisa tries to leave a message in the bathroom that Jackson has a bomb, but he discovers it. In return, he roughs her up, finds her scar, & goes off on her for being dishonest despite his own honesty.
  10. Bad Guys Close In (42-55): Lisa makes the call to move Keefe’s room. Jackson lets it slip that the plan is to kill not just Keefe, but his entire family. In Miami, Keefe checks in to the new room after security okays it. Jackson assures her that once Keefe is dead and she is out of sight, he will call off the hit on her dad.
  11. All Is Lost (55): A false victory as Lisa stabs Jackson in the windpipe with a pen and breaks away from him. The “whiff of death” is actually her victimization; she has convinced herself that what happened two years ago will never happen to her again.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (55-65): Lisa escapes into the terminal & is on the run from Jackson. She calls the hotel & they are able to evacuate Keefe just in time. Her phone dies before she can reach her father.
  13. Break into Three (65): Lisa arrives at her father’s home, spots the hitman, and kills him by running into him with her car.
  14. Finale (65-75): After calling to check on the hotel, Lisa finds her father unconscious & Jackson in the house. This time she is confident she can beat him. She fights back, throwing whatever she can at him & taunting him. She arms herself with a lacrosse stick and begins to stalk him. He catches her off guard, however, and throws her down the stairs. She shoots him with the hitman’s gun, but he manages to disarm her. As Jackson prepares to finish her, her father takes the gun and kills him.
  15. Final Image (75): Lisa tells the rude customers they can shove it. She is stronger now, more confident, and knows what is really important in her life.

It’s been two weeks since I’ve updated this, but it’s been a busy two weeks. I had my audition for the Atlanta Unifieds this past Tuesday, and was very happy with how it went. Also, I finished filming Home Sweet Home last Saturday, which was a week later than I had originally planned because of complications that arose, but I’ve learned to expect problems by this point (since they’ve come up in every single film project I’ve ever attempted.) Then on the last night of shooting, there was an interesting moment where I was filming a scene outside the Trade Center that involved an actress screaming bloody murder, and a police car pulled up to ask me some questions. All things considered, though, I was really glad it was the police, because the alternative probably wouldn’t have been good at all.

Now that April is here, it’s time for me to really get to work. I have to get Home Sweet Home edited fairly soon so I can get it to Sean & Will so they can work on the sound & color correction respectively. I also have to finish editing The Dark Side of Sun Rock; I have a self-imposed deadline for that being completed by the beginning of May so I can get it into a few festivals, but more urgently I need to get a few clips from it to my lead actress for her reel. There are a couple of scenes in it that are still driving me berserk because of continuity problems or lack of good coverage which I’m still trying to find solutions for, and which may result in me headdesking until something comes to me.

The other thing I’ve got going on in April is Script Frenzy, the younger cousin of NaNoWriMo. For anyone unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is a writing event in November where the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. Script Frenzy is similar, except instead of a novel, the goal is to write a 100 page script in one month. I’ve been looking forward to this since I found out about it a few weeks ago, and set aside one of the screenplays I’d been developing until April for this. It’s entitled Once Bit, and it’s my take on the vampire genre. I’m really excited about it, and can’t wait to see how it turns out. If you’re interested in undertaking this challenge as well, let me know so I can have other people to commiserate with. My user ID on the site is IcyBrian.

Today is the first day of shooting for my short film, Home Sweet Home. This is the first short film I’ve shot in over a year and a half, and I can’t express just how much I’ve missed it. I’ve shot a few digital shorts since then, but doing this kind of narrative is a whole different beast. It’s completely crazy & hectic, and by the end I know I’m going to want to kill myself, but I love it.

I didn’t get to film nearly as many short films (or even digital shorts) as I would have liked when I was in college. I always had too many things piling up on me, whether it was class work, shows, my responsibilities with TBNL & ITP, or maintaining my personal life, and so that was the thing that fell to the wayside. Now that I’m out of college and getting settled back in to life in Atlanta, I’m ready to get back to work.

I made a conscious decision a few weeks ago to start focusing more on writing & filmmaking than on acting, because that’s more where my passion lies. I still enjoy acting, but I don’t get nearly as excited about it as I do about ideas I come up with that I want to develop into screenplays. I also know where my strengths lie, and I know I’m a better writer & director than I am an actor.  Besides, I figure I can still get my acting fix by giving myself small roles in my own projects. Regardless, I’m happy with this decision, and feel that it relieves some of the pressure I’ve been putting on myself lately to get my act together.

This project came at me about a month ago from a friend of mine, Jason Geigerman, who’s now working out in LA. He was looking to put together a feature length film comprised of several short films about the apocalypse, and asked me if I’d be interested in writing & directing one. It came at a really good time for me, when I desperately needed to be doing something creative, so I jumped on it. I’m using the upstairs at the Trade Center for most of it, because with as much junk as we’ve accumulated over the years, it really does look like a wasteland up there. I wrote the short around the location, because there’s a lot of potential there for some great images. I’m sure I’ll make another post later with more details, but for now here’s the information on it that I’ve put up on the Cold Silver Films website.

I’m fairly certain that as an actor/writer/filmmaker, I’m legally obligated to make a blog post giving my two cents on the Oscars, regardless of how insignificant those pennies may be (in other words, I was looking for an excuse to write something.) So here we go!

  • Neil Patrick Harris should be on every awards show ever.
  • Loved Alec Baldwin & Steve Martin co-hosting the show. Their opening bit was hilarious, and the two really have a great natural chemistry.
  • Robert Downey Jr. & Tina Fey presenting together may have been the highlight of the night. Those two really need to do a movie together.
  • I know he was the odds-on favorite, but I was still so glad to see Christoph Waltz win for Inglorious Basterds. When I watched that movie in theatres, I was in awe of his character, and was hoping then that he’d be recognized.
  • Gabourey Sidibe melts my heart every time I see her. She’s adorable, and I’ve loved her in every interview I’ve seen her give.
  • For the first time ever, a Star Trek movie won an Oscar. Nice.
  • Michael Giacchino’s acceptance speech for the music in Up was the kind of speech I would want to give, telling young people not to give up on their dreams if they want to do something in the arts.
  • Sandy Powell’s acceptance speech for The Young Victoria was a great example of good sentiment (‘there are a lot of great costume designers who don’t get recognized because they don’t do period films’) combined with utterly horrid execution (“I have so many of these already!”)
  • I really hope that Elinor Burkett gets blacklisted for Kanye-ing Roger Ross Williams’ acceptance speech for Music By Prudence. The poor guy was so excited to be up there, and then she hijacked his time & he had to shout just to acknowledge the subject of his movie! I looked up the actual story on what the deal was with that whole thing, and apparently the crazy woman was a producer who had been cut from the production a year earlier because she didn’t want Music By Prudence to be about, you know, Prudence. What a great person, huh?
  • I really didn’t like the exorbitant amounts of praise lavished upon the Best Actor/Actress nominees. Oprah’s was classy & Colin Farrell’s was funny & down to earth, but other than that it was bordering on Will Farrell’s parody of James Lipton on SNL. Seriously guys, that was too much.
  • The Hurt Locker was a good movie, and Kathryn Bigelow did a fantastic job directing it. That said, I don’t feel like it should have won all the awards that it got. I’m not saying it didn’t deserve to be nominated, but in most categories I felt like there were other films that did a much better job.
    • Best Original Screenplay deserved to go to Quentin Tarantino for Inglorious Basterds; there were things that stood out to me about Hurt Locker, but the screenplay wasn’t one of them (in fact, that’s where I felt it was lacking the most.)
    • Both Avatar and Star Trek were more deserving of the awards for Sound Editing & Sound Mixing; the sound in Hurt Locker didn’t strike me as being all that spectacular.
    • Again, it was very well directed, but it was well directed in the same way that lots of great films are well directed every year. Meanwhile, James Cameron broke new ground with Avatar and did something that had never been done before, and I feel that’s more deserving of recognition for an award entitled “Best Achievement in Directing.”
    • As for Best Picture, I know which one of those two I enjoyed more, which one people actually saw, and which one I’ll still be watching 5-10 years from now.

I was saddened recently to learn of the passing of Blake Snyder, author of the Save the Cat series of screenwriting books. I had read other books on screenwriting before, most notably Syd Field’s Screenplay, which is the basis for modern screenwriting, and Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, which took Field’s ideas and expanded on them, but it wasn’t until I read Save the Cat that things really made sense. It’s a bit cliche, but it really felt like someone flipped a light switch in my brain and suddenly I could see the skeleton structure that underlies a good movie. Since then, Save the Cat, has become my screenwriting Bible, the book I always go back to and whose rules I try to adhere to. That’s not to say I take it as “the unbreakable gospel,” because there are certainly some things I disagree with (Memento is a good movie, damnit!), but as a whole it has become thoroughly ingrained into me with the way I write and look at movies.

More than just structure, it has completely changed the way I look at movie genres. No longer am I confined to such terms as comedy, action, or sci-fi! Sure they may tell you something about the tone of the movie, but they say nothing of the actual story being told. Now when I watch a movie or begin to write one, I instead ask myself whether the movie is an Out of the Bottle or a Buddy Love, a Golden Fleece or a Rite of Passage. Blake broke each genre down into 10 categories (all with 5 subgenres), each of which is about the journey the hero must take, which makes a lot of sense when you get right down to it.

For instance, one of the scripts I’m working on right now is a comedy, but that doesn’t really tell me what movies I need to look at to study the structure and beats of how it should flow. I mean, there’s a big difference betweenWhen Harry Met Sally and Dodgeball; sure, both may be comedies, but they’re completely different types of comedy that tell two completely different stories. However, based on the STC genre it fits into (Issue subgenre of Institutionalized), I’ve found that I can learn far more about how to set up this particular script by looking at other films in that genre, most of which (Magnolia, Crash, Sin City) are certainly not comedies.

Right now I’ve got the section of wall over my desk taped off to represent The Board with a couple dozen notecards tacked up there, each containing information on various scenes for my current screenplay. It may look like a cluttered mess, but it’s a great way for me to see where my problem spots are, what may not be needed, or what would be best moved around. Besides, it’s really nice having something tactile to play around with.

I feel I owe a lot to Mr. Snyder and the works he put out before he passed. I wish I had been able to take one of his workshops to get feedback on my writing, because I’m sure that would have been immensely helpful. But instead, I’ll just give him a thank you for everything, and recommend the Save the Cat books to any writers out there, regardless of the medium.

Last night I was watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It was a cute little movie, and had some good moments (I loved the criminals who all did parkour, and their leader was just really fun to watch) but there was one glaring problem in my book. No, it wasn’t one of the several plot holes in the movie, such as how the daughter managed to just stroll into a mall that was supposedly surrounded by cops without realizing something was wrong; I can deal with that kind of thing, especially in this type of comedy flick. No, my problem with the movie didn’t come until the very end, and it’s very simple:

Not every movie needs to have a twist ending!

Now, I know this movie is a Die Hard spoof, and it may have been a play off of the end of Die Hard 2, but frankly I don’t consider that an excuse. There really was no reason to have the leader of the SWAT team turn bad for all of one minute before being taken down at the end of the movie. It felt like one of those “Oooh! Oooh! Here’s something else we can do!” things that the writer decided to throw in there at the last minute to push it over the 90 minute mark. Why? For an extra little punch? To cement him as a douchebag? To give the old mall cop who we don’t care about a moment of heroism?

Honestly, my beef with it isn’t that it doesn’t make sense, or that there was zero build-up or hint at the fact that there was anyone else involved. My problem is that it actually hurt the movie! A big theme throughout the film was Paul Blart not getting respect from anyone, especially law enforcement officials. So when he was in the van with the SWAT leader and was actually paid a compliment, that should have been a big deal for our hero! It would have made for a much stronger final beat of the movie for Blart to have actually earned the respect of the big badass guy who had doubted his ability the whole time. Instead, this is sacrificed for a twist that frankly just doesn’t work.