I got some positive feedback and also a little eyebrow raising from some of my director friends who read my previous blog entry “How much power should a director have over a production”. Now I have a vested interest as a writer and aspiring actor, as well as experienced sound guy, to maintain good relationships with local filmmakers, so I have to resist the urge to tone down my thoughts and opinions in order to avoid being ostracized. But I feel I can and must be honest and open in my blogging. To do otherwise would constitute a commercial sellout for which I would deserve to be completely squelched out by my readership here and on Twitter. How can I champion art over commerce, and then abandon my principles in order to land parts and and crew work? So I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to work for or with any local filmmaker who cannot take some constructive criticism and look in the mirror once in a while. I do it every day! And much of what I say here is tongue-in-cheek, and I will mock myself just as quickly and easily as I’ll mock anyone else.
One of my colleagues told me in no uncertain terms that until I’ve walked the walk, I should refrain from criticizing anyone else. Well, my first short is in post, and as soon as I finish the editing, I will put it out for the world to see (and criticize!). But as I stated in a previous blog, I do not believe that one needs to be an expert practitioner to be able to nor allowed to critique the work of others. And furthermore, there is a benefit to having one’s efforts objectively critiqued. A filmmaker’s close friends and co-workers are going to be hesitant to tell him what’s not right about what he’s doing or make strong suggestions for improvement (not if they want to continue to be friends and work on productions). That’s what the outside set of ears and eyes is for. That’s what I do. (takes a deep breath)…
Let me state for the record, that while there are some good indie directors who can also write, being a good director neither implies nor guarantees being a good writer. These guys need to study the craft just as we dedicated writers do. They need to read books and take classes, and practice just as diligently as any other writer. They should have friends review their screenplays and solicit honest feedback, just as any smart writer would do. And they should (if they aren’t already doing it) be reading lots of Hollywood screenplays and watching lots of movies.
I think I struck a few raw nerves when I insinuated that ego was possibly the reason many indie directors only want to direct their own scripts, even if (as I had originally put it) they were just so-so writers. And I think that is a shame, since there are a lot of great writers (who don’t pretend they can also direct) with some great scripts to offer up. It seems to be the nature of the (indie) beast though that most of the filmmaking is done by combination writer/directors.
There are a lot of brilliantly-photographed, wonderfully-acted, beautifully-scored films where objective viewers are left scratching their heads at vague themes, lack of character development and arcs, trite dialog, thin plots and predicable endings: the hallmark of poor writing. Now, it’s not all as bad as that. There are some great small budget indie films and web series’ out there (and I know some of the people who have made them and will interview a few of the top area filmmakers in the near future). I’m just saying that there is also a great deal of poor storytelling (yes even in Hollywood and even on Netflix): thinly-disguised with interesting camera work, sensational special effects, and catchy music. It’s pandemic though in the indie world. We should all strive to rise above that.
I wrote in an earlier blog about how indie filmmaking had become a much more accessible medium with the advent of inexpensive video cameras, and free or cheap distribution channels such as YouTube, but that this had created an over-saturation of mediocre quality material (what I, when wearing my sound guy hat, refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio). I am a firm believer that for a film to rise above and apart from the noise floor, it needs to have more than beautiful shots, a lovely musical score, and photogenic and talented actors. It needs a great story. I can’t see anyone arguing with that point.
I sort of hope that one of the main outcomes of any constructive criticism, will be that the cream of the low-budget indie filmmakers would self-reflect more and would raise their own standards even higher. There are some really talented local filmmakers. A good screenplay is one of the things that a low-budget filmmaker can afford in the indie world (as opposed to helicopter shots, exploding cars, and shots of actors walking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at midday). I also would hope that those who are endlessly churning out fluff, and then begging incessantly for people to view and like their stuff, would be encouraged to put their inexpensive camcorders aside for a little while, and study and read and reflect, and pay attention to the good stuff out there. Maybe they should consider even hooking up in a supporting capacity for a period of time with a truly talented filmmaker to really learn what goes into the making of a good film.
My parting advice to everyone is to dial down the egos a little: there’s room for improvement for everyone. I know that my writing can certainly stand improvement. That’s one of the reasons I blog. And it’s one of the reasons I heartily welcome your feedback.
On yet another drink-a-thorn with a few of my independent filmmaking colleagues (anyone see a theme here) an interesting topic for discussion was broached. The filmmaking folks in my circle of friends consist mainly of directors, producers and writers, so naturally the question revolved around the working relationship between the three. We talked a little about how things are done in Hollywood, but since most of us will never do more in Hollywood beyond taking the celebrity tour, we stuck mainly to how things are typically done and possibly should be done, and even could be done under various circumstances in the small-budget independent filmmaking world affectionately known as “indiewood”.
In that soul-crushing world known as Hollywood, the producer assigned by the studio exec is typically god on most productions. Only very famous and well-respected directors are allow “final cut” over a film they direct. Otherwise, they are just the person who executes the screenplay according to the wishes of the producer. And in Hollywood, the writer usually is long gone once the studio has bought the rights to his or her script. The final production shown in theaters could be something entirely different from what the writer intended. But unless you’re talking about an academy award winning screenwriter, the writer is generally considered just a provider of raw material for the movie and nothing more. If he or she writes a sensitive, heart-wrenching drama and it gets turned into a slapstick comedy, well that’s part of the soul-crushing aspect of Hollywood. Complications can rear up when say the director is also the writer, or the writer is also an actor and maybe an executive producer (or nephew of a rainmaker executive producer). Ah there are so many permeations. But for the sake of this discourse, we will stick mainly to talking about the low-budget/no-budget world of indiewood.
So in this beer-fueled discussion, I find myself the advocate for the writer. Two of my colleagues are directors who have also written and directed their own works. Another colleague is a producer. So I have this stack of screenplays I believe with all my heart are very good, but as an inexperienced director I want to shop them to a director I can work collaboratively with so as to make sure the intentions of my stories are faithfully put into a finished production, but without having to worry about dealing directly with actors, nor having to work out every camera angle and movement. One of my director friends says that I cannot have my cake and eat it too. If I hire a director to make my script into a movie, I must trust him or her and relinquish all my (as he calls it) backseat driving urges. There can only be one director and he makes the decisions on how to interpret the script.
Now hold on, my producer colleague says. The director reports to the producer and unless the director is Marty Scorcese, he doesn’t get the final cut power. My director colleague retorts that this ain’t Hollywood, and the producer is not the representative of the money people. The indiewood producer is just responsible for paperwork, and s hedging locations, and signing checks and arranging the food and coffee. At this point, I chime in with my own “this isn’t Hollywood” retort and express that the writer is the one who has slaved over every action and every word to get it all perfect. Since in indiewood, quite often it is the writer who funds the production, he should
So many filmmaking folks feel that there is some kind of tall wall between those in front of the camera and those behind the camera. Many of the crew actually stand in awe of the actors for their ability to transform themselves into a fictional character. Often the feeling of awe is reciprocal. I notice on set actors sometimes gazing with awe at the jumble of cameras, dollies, cranes, lights, microphones and audio equipment. I think both are justified in being in awe of the other. To pull off a decent film requires dedicated teamwork under the auspices of the director (creative) and production manager (scheduling and logistics and so forth). It isn’t often you come across someone who is both comfortable and confident, both in front of and behind the camera. Sometimes directors write themselves into a part and try to do both. As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, unless you are both very good at directing and very good at acting, this can be a formula for failure.
Occasionally, I see someone else make the transition from one side to the other, and I find it interesting for various reasons. Firstly, a lot of people working crew just assume they can never be an actor. They assume (and rightly so) that acting requires some innate talent that while it can be honed with lessons and coaching, cannot be created out of nothing. But a lot of people don’t really know what latent talents lie hidden beneath layers of personality shaped by that dull grinding day job. There is often an actor waiting to be “discovered” and nurtured in that person who moves the lights around or decorates the set. And conversely, there are often actors who have a good eye for lighting or ear for sound, who when called on to lend a hand, can turn out to be quite proficient in helping out the crew after his or her’s parts have been filmed.
Some crew folks have great personalities, a fantastic sense of humor, and often ham it up behind the camera. Why shouldn’t they at least give it a whirl? And on low-budget indies, one would think directors would always be on the lookout for cheap (read: free) fresh new talent. But unfortunately we local small-time filmmakers tend to make this transition more difficult than it need be by insisting potential actors go through hoops before working for food. We too often require formal things like a headshot, resume, demo reel, and references even for someone being cast in a role with three short lines, before we’ll even consider auditioning them. It seems a tragic waste of potential to be overlooking those who simply never considered taking the time to put all those “hoops” together. But there are progressive directors who just seem to instinctively know they like someone for a part. And quite often these directors are able to elicit a more credible performance than they might from spending many hours reviewing paperwork and holding auditions.
I recently was working sound on a production, and had as usual been goofing around and hamming it up during breaks with my mates. I hadn’t realized the director had been watching. He approached me later in the day to ask if I was interested in playing a short role with maybe a half-dozen lines for a character that he thought I just might be perfect for. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, but also curious, so I jumped at the chance (fortunately there was another guy there qualified to take over the mixing). It was quite an eye-opening experience. I learned how really difficult acting is. It was not just about memorizing a script—that was the easy part. My bigger problem was getting heavily into the character I was playing and practicing it until I felt I was that character, and then staying there for hours as delay after delay in shooting pushed the schedule back. By the time they got around to shooting my scenes, I was rather tired and no longer “in the moment”. I had lost my edge. There was a huge lesson to be learned about peaking too early. I managed to fix this somewhat with an extra large coffee. If you’re wondering how it turned out, it’s still in post, but the director told me he was quite pleased with the footage.
I’ve heard other stories about astute directors noticing crew members and also guests hanging out on set, who were carrying on off camera in a certain way. After a brief discrete chat, and a script tweak, there’d be a newbie on camera as an extra or maybe with a small speaking part. Different people react differently when asked if they want to be on camera. Some are just not into it at all and run for the hills. Kudos to these directors who have open minds and aren’t afraid to take chances on occasion. It’s great for the local film community as a whole to give people an opportunity to contribute in different ways. But I’ve also known plenty of directors who won’t give anyone a chance unless they go through the official channels (acting agency) and jump through the formal “loops” (demo reel, resume with proper headshot, and references, etc…) And that’s a real shame since many of the best performances you’ll see in micro-budget Indieworld are pulled off by folks with little or no formal acting experience or training. Danny Trejo supposedly was discovered after he was released from prison and turned up on set as a guest of someone he was helping with a drug addiction problem as his sponsor. The point is you never know where the next new talent might come from.
Having myself directed several shorts, I feel it is not just my duty, but a smart thing to think outside the box and consider all possibilities. That tall geeky guy holding the microphone boom, clowning around—he might just be perfect for a geeky nerdy character who clowns around in the same way. In this small-budget indie film world, we have a golden opportunity to not be hampered by artificial lines of separation imposed by guilds and unions and studios. So keep your eyes and ears open all the time, because fresh, exciting, undiscovered talent might just be as near as your own set.