spoiler

posted by victor @ 11:08 pm December 13, 2011 in film,writing

“What kind of movie is it?”

A simple question, best answered simply. In describing Darkening Sky, “A horror/thriller with elements of sci-fi” comes close, and seems to be the approach being taken in marketing the film. But I prefer, “A psychological thriller wrapped in a story about alien abduction.” A bit narrower, yes, but more accurate. Darkening Sky actually has more in common with Shutter Island or Black Swan than, say, Communion or Fire In The Sky (or more recently, The Fourth Kind). Yes, there are wild UFO theories, and even aliens, but to call it a movie about alien abduction would be like calling Black Swan a movie about ballet. (Ahem: spoiler alert?)

Darkening Sky was conceived with the idea that people who do horrible things usually don’t regard themselves as horrible. For them, their actions and responses might seem perfectly reasonable. Or at least defensible, given the circumstances. So, what if a man obsessed with proving something false (i.e., alien abduction) was forced to deal with circumstances that left no other possible explanation? And what if that obsession was a bit more — let’s say, “complicated” — than he is letting on? That sounded like fun to me! And that’s the story I tried to tell.

Which brings us to the problem of Expectations. Mixing genres is all well and good, but once a film is released to the wild for viewing by everyone, it introduces the potential problem of building anticipation for one thing, but delivering something else. Managing expectations is of course easier when millions of dollars are being thrown at marketing. But a little indie film might understandably have a tougher time of it. Fair enough. So far, early reviewers of Darkening Sky seem willing to critique the movie on its own merits, which is great. One thoughtful reviewer described it as, “…mixing that genre [ufos] with another which shall remain nameless so that I don’t spoil the movie.”  Well put! And no spoiler necessary.

we can be heroes

posted by victor @ 1:26 pm January 30, 2011 in film,writing

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s DGA symposium featuring all five Best Director noms.* I’m usually terrible about keeping track of who exactly did what when, and didn’t fully register until I was seated that 4 of the 5 present were responsible for movies ranking high on my personal All-Time Faves list.** We arrived early and were rewarded with excellent seats just a few rows back. Extended clips were played from each director’s current (nominated) work, followed by an extended panel interview moderated by veteran director Jeremy Kagan.

The whole thing was absolutely riveting, with open-ended, essay-style questions prompting excellent discussion on process and technique and also addressing many of the practical/mundane realities of filmmaking typically not discussed in conventional settings. Answers were thorough, candid and articulate, directed to an audience of — okay, if not exactly “peers,” then at least fellow filmmakers, enabling the use of a kind of shorthand that made it possible for the panel to respond with satisfying depth and clarity.

Running just over 3 hours, the event was, of course, thoroughly entertaining and inspiring. It was also incredibly validating. Filmmaking is a pursuit that can inspire endless second-guessing and self-doubt… but leaves little room for either. So it was particularly interesting to hear from people very much at the top of their game discuss their own feelings, thoughts and approaches so openly. I left with many of my own ideas and instincts reaffirmed, others challenged in intriguing ways, and brilliant alternatives to others. Fincher was a total cutup; Nolan just as austere and articulate as ever. Aronofsky was surprisingly open and down to earth, Hooper clear and earnest, and Russell brought the house down with his response to a question regarding handling anger on set: “This question doesn’t really apply to me,” he deadpanned, then went on to humbly discuss his famous explosion with disarming humility.

* thanks to my good friend Martin!

** R-L in pic: Memento, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, Three Kings

doing

posted by victor @ 10:00 am November 3, 2010 in film,writing

Harsh. That’s what I always think when I hear the old saw, “Those who can’t do, teach.” It sounds so mean, I have a hard time saying it out loud. Now John August, whose blog I thoroughly love and appreciate (along with his writing) has weighed in on the idea, using this guy’s rant as a starting point for a more measured take. To be fair, the main target is script consultants, but August goes on to paint all “how-to” folk (book writers, script consultants, seminar-givers) with a broad brush:

“I don’t endorse any of them. I haven’t found any I’d recommend to readers.”

I’m a little shocked that of all the screenwriting books out there — and there are plenty — John is unable to find even one he can recommend (I have found many to be helpful in simply providing an alternate POV on the work, a useful exercise whether I agree with the author’s conclusions/assertions or not). But then August comes right back with his reasonable awesomeness with something I can whole-heartedly agree with:

“I think you can learn from people who have spent a long time analyzing a craft, even if they’re not particularly good at practicing it.”

This is what has always bothered me about “Those who can’t do, teach.” There can be great insight gained from methodical analysis of any technique… Even writing. But sadly, not everyone who gains insights into how something is done  is actually cut out to do the thing themselves! We all know the gap between what we can appreciate and what we can pull off; that maddening gap that keeps us working and striving so that one day, if we are fortunate, we might create something that closes it.

festivities

posted by victor @ 3:55 pm October 29, 2010 in film,geek,life,writing

Yay! Participating in the Hollywood Film Festival was tons of fun. Heartfelt thanks to all who showed up, either in person or in spirit, to lend their support. Huge thanks, also, to my producer and all of the brilliant people involved in making Darkening Sky a reality.

But there were some technical issues. With picture and sound. A two-fer! Turns out that the HDCAM deck used for projection was, for some reason, set with Very Dark gamma, resulting in brightness/contrast levels that crushed anything remotely “dark” into “pure black.” This meant things that took a long time to get right — a shadowy something creeping across the floor of a room at night, for example — were completely invisible. Some of these were Story Points™. Plus something in the deck’s handling of the stereo/5:1 split made the audio ear-splittingly, painfully LOUD early on.

Now… When people complain about technical issues “wrecking” a film, I’m usually the asshole saying (or at least thinking) something like, “Well, the story either works, or it doesn’t.” Egad. Well, I’m happy (mostly) to report that I was (mostly) able to embrace this idea myself and (mostly) relax and move on. The performances ultimately came through and carried the day. The story I intended to tell was told. And by all reports, it made sense and was entertaining. Still, here is how I imagined a post-festival interview might have gone.

The screening and pre/post hangs were great fun, and the Hollywood Awards Gala was also great fun — of a different kind. Me and the Missus got to play dress-up and enjoy an open-bar, nice dinner, award ceremony and after-party (more open bar) at the Beverly Hilton… Along with a surprising array of stars I actually like, including, but not limited to: Helena Bonham Carter, Sean Penn, Sam Rockwell, Jodie Foster, Halle Berry, Aaron Sorkin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Christopher Nolan, Justin Long, Andrew Garfield, Annette Benning, Zach Galifianakis, Morgan Freeman and Robert Duvall. Yikes. Being there at all would have been a thrill; being there as a filmmaker was completely awesome and inspiring.

hardy laurels

posted by victor @ 4:23 pm September 14, 2010 in film,writing

This just in: Darkening Sky is a finalist in the 2010 Hollywood Film Festival.

The festival runs Oct. 22-25 at the Hollywood Arclight. Yay! Our first festival, and it’s right here in town, at my favorite venue to see movies.

Specifics (date/time) coming soon. Hope to see you there!

finish line

posted by victor @ 6:24 pm June 17, 2010 in film,life,Uncategorized,writing

It’s done! Yes, the film is done, made, finished, complete, wrapped. I know this because at my writer’s group meeting a couple of weeks ago — when they ask if anyone has any announcements — I finally raised my hand and said that I’d just finished my first feature film. Because it was actually finished… Like, finished finished, as in through with post-production, with screeners making the rounds to various distributors (so everybody visualize whirled peas!).

Why no hollering from rooftops? Well, “finishing” turned out to be a little softer than I’d imagined, trickier to nail down than other phases of the operation. Like, say, wrapping the shoot, where cast and crew are not showing up tomorrow and it’s hugs all ’round. No, it’s more like scooting away from your desk late one night, hitting “render,” then going about your bidneh until this version makes the internal rounds and we’re all happy with it. So over the course of a few days a while back, we were happy with it, and I quietly realized, “So…it’s finished!” Then promptly spaced out, worked on other things, and took a trip to the desert. Now I’m back and we’re still finished. So it’s true!

People say that making a film is more like running a marathon than a doing flashy sprint, and I agree. I’d go one further and say it’s like running a marathon comprised of many, many, little sprints (some flashy, some not), with l-o-n-g breaks in between to assess, review, and prepare for the next. Also, the “finish line” is pretty amorphous and entirely subjective. Kind of “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Only not as pathetic as that sounds! Plus it’s not “over” yet. Still need to get that distribution deal sorted! Just…one…more…step…!

T.M.I.? K.I.S.S. (part 1)

posted by victor @ 9:26 am May 26, 2010 in film,writing

One especially delicate matter in screenwriting is the delivery of information, or Exposition. As in, “Exposition Cop,” that guy hovering around a crime scene rattling off details about who’s who, what happened, etc., to bring his buddy (but mainly us) up to speed. Of course, every movie requires exposition. Some handle it artfully, weaving it in so well that you aren’t even aware of receiving sizable doses of data; others — well, not so much, as with Exposition Cop or similar devices, when exposition feels exactly like what it is…information delivery:

“Oh, they might look clean, but these guys are nothing but trouble. Big one’s Johnny, list of priors long as your arm, including armed robbery; bald one there’s Sam, junkie with a penchant for passing bad checks; the little one’s Marty, supposed to be some kinda big-deal hacker, street rep a mile wide but nobody’s been able to pin anything on him. Yet!”

But there is something important for the writer to consider: if you find yourself struggling to find ways of artfully delivering all the info you need to, maybe the problem is a case of TMI, too much information to deliver without feeling heavy-handed. And this may be pointing to that other possibility — that another, larger issue is to blame: Too Many Ideas.

For the writer working with a story through multiple drafts, things can start to feel “too simple,” and it’s hard to resist the urge to “make it more interesting” (more elaborate, more complicated) in order to satisfy that itch. At least if you’re me. But this is often counter-productive, as readers/viewers will be receiving your story only once to decide whether or not they like it. Much as we would love it, they will not be studying or taking notes; the story has to be simple enough to “wash over” them, easily graspable and making sense the first time ’round (of course without being predictable or overly simplistic — a whole ‘nuther kind of problem!). This means being willing to admit that the trouble lies at a more root level: perhaps your story doesn’t lack complexity, maybe it lacks strong, definitive beats and turns. The “easy” solution is to complexify it, instead of doing some “back to the drawing board”-level work. A tough call, but one we need to be ready to consider and act on.

made

posted by victor @ 3:03 pm January 30, 2010 in film,life,writing

wrappedOkay, so one little running joke throughout this “making a movie” adventure — at least in my head — has been deciding when, exactly, I can say it. Say, “I made a movie.” Okay we, but the point is, when can it actually be considered “made?” It’s important. Why? Well for one thing, I have a notion to get a tattoo commemorating each finished flicker.*

Originally, I figured it would be upon wrapping the shoot. I mean, it takes a LOT to get to that point, and well, you’ve definitely “shot” it, haven’t you. It’s fair, at this point, to say, “I shot a movie.” But — it’s not really a movie yet, is it… I mean, not at all. It’s certainly well on its way to being one at this point; quite unlikely that all this footage will just be shelved, set aside, forgotten. But there’s nothing to show for it. Not yet, not really, other than photos of how much fun/adventure it was!

premiereSo it must be later in the process. Okay, Final Cut! Not the (awesome) software, the event. As in, “We have a final cut!” The film is edited, and that edit is locked. Final. Surely at this point it’s “a movie,” isn’t it? Beginning, middle, end? You could actually sit down and watch it! Could, perhaps…but realistically, almost no one will. Or should! Temp sound, temp VFX, audio levels all over the map, colors still flat, etc., etc., etc. Sure it’s stitched together, but it’s still not presentable. Gah. Maybe it’s not “really real,” until it’s been screened, received (well or otherwise), bought and distributed. Surely THAT is a Made Movie…?? Come to the premiere! Buy it! Rent it!

Naw. Fuck that. I’m tired of waiting. Okay, how’s this: How about when there’s a bona fide, finished, color-corrected, sweetly mixed, tweaked, polished, awesomely awesome finished version of the film that we’re actually sending out on DVD as a screener? One we’ve shown at an official wrap party? ridertattooSounds good to me! Well, in that case, we’re only about one month out from me yelling from the rooftops! Figuratively, at least. And who knows, maybe even getting that tattoo. But…of what? The title? Logo? Hm… I know: Maybe it should be a likeness of Rider’s face… Something tasteful, say, covering my entire chest. Something…Classy. Yeah; I think know he’d like that.

* I don’t have any tattoos yet, but it always seemed to me like something that should mark a special achievement or goal having been reached. This seems to qualify.

filmwriting

posted by victor @ 12:01 pm November 15, 2009 in film,writing

It really is like they say, maddening as it might be for writers like me to hear (at least in the abstract, or certainly from folks who don’t write): A solid screenplay is only the beginning. If you’re lucky enough to see your vision through from start to finish (literally: concept >> development >> production >> post), this lesson can hit home on a whole new level (I’m still in the middle of step 4 right now, but feeling reflective).

First, there’s the movie you write: “The Screenplay” — certainly no small task — which becomes the catalyst for all that may or may not follow — others (partners, crew, talent, etc.) will or will not find it engaging and/or worth pursuing, and so on. Next comes converting all that ephemera into actual stuff: characters into actors, slug lines into physical locations, action lines into shot lists… The part most people are picturing when they say, “making a movie.” But it’s all really just an extension of the first phase (writing), fitting under the umbrella of “gathering ingredients.” All that magic, all that stress, all those slings and arrows, and what you end up with — if the stars align in your favor — is a crate full of stuff someone can hopefully stitch into a “movie.”

darkeningfcpThen comes the actual Making a Movie part. Cutting together all those moments, that amazing thing actors do (I am ever more in awe of this particular piece of magic), all those beautifully lit and composed shots your cinematographer fought for (thank god!), all those pickups your scriptie and AD reminded you to get, all that hard work by all those fantastic people… Then, if the stars continue to align with you, voilá: A movie! Easy-peasy.

I consider myself primarily a writer, but I love the whole enchilada. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd… And going through the entire process of filmmaking so powerfully informs the writing process and (potentially, at least) enriches it, I think all writers should partake, at whatever level they can. There can be such a disconnect between something that “reads well” and something that actually transfers into strong visual entertainment, and there’s nothing like shepherding an idea through to completion to have those lessons stamped into your writing DNA, hopefully to empower you to write better films, not just scripts. Which I intend to keep working on doing  :^)… (yes, that’s a drooling smiley).

suck wall

posted by victor @ 12:06 am May 2, 2009 in film,life,music,writing

blankcanvasThere comes a time on the road to artistry when one encounters the Wall Of Suck. That is the wall you hit where your natural ability at something leads you to actually study and practice it, which takes you to the point where you are met with the actual depth and breadth of your incompetence… Suddenly, you suck. Suddenly, it is devastatingly clear that your “natural ability” was just a starting place, a jumping off point on a journey to the place where you might actually get good at something. I call it a wall, because this is where you either give up (turn back) or your workload increases exponentially (i.e., your forward movement becomes a vertical climb). I’ve encountered it a few times in my life; some pursuits presented challenges I could not ignore and proceeded to engage with all my energy, damn the consequences… Others were ultimately revealed as misguided, and I bailed.

passionI think what pushes people up and over the wall is passion, pure and simple. Either this thing truly lights you up and inspires you, or it  does not. When it comes down to it, it’s just you and the _____ (guitar, blank canvas, whatever), and no one really gives a shit. If you don’t absolutely love doing it, you will not do the work, and you will continue sucking. The road ahead is arduous, lonely and often boring; frustration is constant (the curse of good taste comes strongly into play), and nothing but overriding love for the sheer doing of it will push you through. Plus you have to be stupid enough to actually think you can be great at something, and be willing to perform (show, tell, whatever) in front of others and be humiliated. Yay! Oh, and your work will truly suck — even after you get pretty good at it — and you will know it (and if you don’t, well, that’s a whole other animal not being discussed here).

So ultimately, the Wall Of Suck is your friend; when you hit it, don’t be discouraged…or do be discouraged, and stop wasting time lying to yourself about what it is you really want to do. It’s probably something else. The artists I am most interested in hearing from are the ones that can’t not do what they’re doing (not the ones trying to be famous/rich/loved for it).

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