Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Can we ban the word “pretentious” from the dictionary?

My friend John Luke Retard e-mailed me and a mutual Critic friend the Toronto Film Festival best of the decade list. John Luke confessed he had fallen asleep during Syndromes and a Century and the Critic sent a brief reply dismissing the list as pretentious. I expect that kind of shallow reaction from an intimidated and insecure mainstream moviegoer, but coming from a critic it really bothered me. Especially after he had already said the same thing about The Hollywood Reporter’s list, pointing out that, even though he had not seen The White Ribbon, any list with that much Michael Haneke had to be pretentious. I don’t know if it was his use of one of my most hated words, his disdain for one of my favorite directors or the chile relleno I had for lunch, but my gut started to burn. I took a Zantac, meditated for a bit and proceeded to grill him on his definition of “pretentious.” He sent back this lovely definition: “long, slow films that most audiences will not care about or enjoy.” I popped a Paxil.

“Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.”—Margot Fonteyn

I abhor the word “pretentious” because it’s thrown around willy-nilly, as if it’s supposed to be a grandiose and meaningful statement in of itself. It’s quite the opposite. I have used the word before in a film review. But to me, pretentiousness is the antithesis of honesty; it lies within the context of the artist’s intent. The Critic was using it to judge the TIFF list-maker’s intent, as if his/her choices had no relevance because it was unlikely they would appeal to a wide audience. As a member of a smaller audience that seeks out more original and artistic films, I am offended that someone would suggest that what I want to see doesn’t matter. It was as if the Critic was saying, “your hunger for these obscure arthouse films is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If you refuse to be part of the herd, then risk being called a pretentious twit."

I started to review movies out of a need to, not just write, but to promote worthy films outside the mainstream radar. Voltaire said that “no statue has ever been erected for a critic.” While it’s true, the profession doesn’t have to be without merit. It is certainly a noble pursuit to support and promote worthwhile efforts outside the mainstream. I wrote the Critic, that where he saw pretentiousness and the list-maker’s selfish self-aggrandizing, I perceived advocacy. As a filmmaker, I hope one day my work will be championed by a critic. Anyone, actually.

I am sure The Dark Knight and Up will be on many lists, but really, do they need it? Christopher Nolan and Pixar are doing all right. Better than all right. The same can’t be said for dozens of brilliant filmmakers that cannot get financing off the ground and distribution for their films. They’re calling it the Indie Bloodbath.

I thank and applaud those who bring attention to lesser known movies. Making discoveries would be difficult without those generous, caring souls. Someone is going to read the TIFF list and discover a filmmaker they have never heard of before and maybe love her movie. (I’ve added Distant, Platform and Colossal Youth to my bulging Netflix queue.)The hope is always that someone, somewhere, will notice your work and give it some attention so that you can find your audience.

I am working my way through the decade’s movies trying to figure out what I think are the best. I can tell you right now that ranking my picks will be downright impossible. I don’t watch that many Hollywood movies because it’s a waste of my time. However, I hope you don’t see me and/or my list as pretentious. I don’t have an agenda. I like what I like and I champion what I think should be championed. It’s as simple as that. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beyond the Shitty First Draft

There is no such thing as a first draft, or an OK first draft, or a pretty good first draft. There are only Shitty First Drafts and Super Shitty First Drafts and the only way to graduate from Super Shitty to just Shitty is to write several Super Shitty First Drafts.

Every screenwriter, at least the ones that live in the reality of this planet (believe me, there are many who don’t and most reside in Los Angeles) knows that the first draft is not even good enough to show your mother. This is particularly hard to stomach if you are a beginner screenwriter and you think everything you write is super clever and compelling. Write a few scripts, show them to some people, and watch that six figure spec deal delusion crumble.

I’ve completed many Shitty First Drafts and the road to the rewrite is always excruciatingly painful because, after all that work, the thought of taking it apart and risk making it worse, is horrific to me. Last night I attended the Notes on Craft: Rewriting session at the WGA in an effort to come to terms with that fear. The impressive panel was moderated by Daniel Petrie, Jr. and was composed of John August, Jack Epps, Jr. and Scott Frank.

I can’t begin to tell you how helpful and inspiring the experience was. It wasn’t that I heard earth-shattering information although the advice and tips from the writers were great. No, what I discovered was that even established and wildly successful screenwriters have the same fears and tackle the same problems as hopefuls.

The three writers had three different processes and approaches to writing. Epps is organized, uses note cards and has to have a clear vision and outline before he begins. August needs to know the beginning and the end and then works towards the middle. Frank just writes and writes until he discovers the story and finds its heartbeat. He confessed this was an extremely arduous, agonizing and long, long, long method.

They agreed that the greatest rewrite fear comes from having to risk everything that works to fix what doesn’t. It’s tricky to navigate around what’s working. So how do you figure out what doesn’t work? You need to trust yourself and your instinct and remember why you wanted to write this story in the first place. You should also have a few trusted friends and colleagues that will read your script and give you helpful notes. Some trusted readers should be people who’d love the kind of movie you are writing and others who wouldn’t consider it their thing.

The Shitty First Draft exists to be torn apart, and almost always, the second draft process will be more difficult. A writer must find the inspiration to tackle the second draft with fresh eyes and the courage to be brutal and savage. You should perceive the task as a challenge and not a mechanical chore and you need to continue to locate yourself in the material so that it’s a living, breathing story.

These writers were telling me exactly what I instinctively knew and they confirmed why it was so difficult to tear that first draft apart.

Interestingly, Frank commented that the reason you start a script hardly ever winds up in the final draft.

The screenwriters spoke about their rewriting assignments and they agreed that the common denominator of bad scripts is the lack of good characters. They get called in to “fix the girl, make her sound human.” Too often, writers concentrate on plot and populate the story with “attitudes.” These “people” do not act like humans, the plot and where it’s going dictates what the characters do and say. Frank said that the only way you can have an artful script is to have great characters. Story is easy, great characters are not.

Because it’s so tough to discern what works or doesn’t, Epps urged us to formulate a plan of attack and concentrate on only one thing with each pass. He added that most of his rewriting consisted of figuring out character motivation and deepening relationships and subplots. He offered Tootsie as an example. Michael Dorsey’s story and arc are pretty clear, but each of his relationships is what drives the story and makes it compelling.

The single most valuable tip involved audience consideration. The writers pointed out the importance of the audience’s point of view: what do they want to see? August mentioned the evolution of Iron Man. The filmmakers were smart enough to realize that the audience wanted to see Robert Downey, Jr. creating his inventions, so they cut a lot of the action and plot from the final film and gave them more of what they wanted to see.

Other helpful tips/exercises:

• Give yourself the freedom to write off the page and get your characters talking.

• Imagine the story from each character’s point of view, change the dynamics of the scene, i.e. which character drives it and have fun writing it.

• Pay close attention to scene transitions and focus on them to improve pace. Frequently, if scene transitions are not effective, that means one of the scenes is unnecessary.

• Change up obligatory genre scenes, i.e. the “meet cute” in a romcom. Think of ways to change the formula and write it differently.

• Ask yourself: if the inciting incident didn’t happen, would I watch these characters anyway? If the answer is no, you have to go back to characterization.

Burn down the house. Be horrible to your main character. Things can always get worse for her.

• Always be on the lookout for lack of conflict. It doesn’t matter how small a scene is, it should always have conflict.

• When it comes to polishing, be mindful of rhythm, flow and tone. Vary sentence structure or else the read will be very boring. Say a lot with the least amount of words possible and make every word count. They recommended Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest” as the quintessential example of saying a lot with little.

• If you can tell what your script is about without getting long winded or digressing, then the draft is ready for other eyes.

Finally, Frank expressed that the best reason to write was to amuse yourself. But because writing is such agony, it must be an obsession. And yes, successful writers also move commas around and mess with the settings of their screenwriting program to cheat page count and call it rewriting.

I’m still afraid, but it’s comforting to know that there are others out there who are with me in my suffering. I think I’m ready to face the imaginary paper shredder. And anyway, what choice do I have? This is an obsession.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wilder’s Eleven Tips on Screenwriting

This year, as a screenwriter and also as a film critic,  I have learned to take the audience into consideration and even respect it. And believe me, for a born and raised film snob and idiosyncratic filmmaker, it was a long and painful process.  I think Billy Wilder expressed it best:

"An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark - that is critical genius."

In the documentary Billy Wilder Speaks, Volker Schlondorff asked Wilder what should be in a screenplay. He responded: "Interior. Exterior. Day. Night. That's it."

Watch Billy Wilder speaks in Celebrity & Showbiz  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

It's advice I have taken to heart and which has enabled me to demystify the craft of screenwriting and realize the supremacy of the Story. Sitting through readings of over-written screenplays has helped a lot too. Don't do unto others...

Wilder's screenwriting advice below reflects his respect for the audience and his approach to filmmaking. It's great advice from a filmmaker that gave us one of the most articulate, enjoyable and influential body of work in the history of cinema.

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you're going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the end of the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then

11. That's it. Don't hang around.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is it true that the few remaining truths are graffiti, suicide notes, and shopping lists?

Umberto Eco recently said in an interview "I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia." Read full interview here.

I agree that lists can be anti-democratic, discriminatory, elitist, and sometimes the print is too small. Still, I make lists to try to put my life in some kind of order, but once I make them, I never look at them again. Even shopping lists. The list below is an attempt to make sense of my movie watching experience this year.

The Best:

The Headless Woman
The Hurt Locker
The Beaches of Agnes
You the Living
Lorna’s Silence
Women Without Men
Tokyo Sonata
An Education
The White Ribbon

I can’t believe I actually sat through and endured these, one of which almost turned me into a francohater:

Paris 36
Little Ashes
The Stoning of Soraya M
Blue Balls aka The Watchmen
What Goes Up
State of Play

Three of the most disappointing came from three of my favorite directors:

Broken Embraces
The Limits of Control
Whatever Works
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
The Road

Documentaries I enjoyed:

The Guest of Cindy Sherman
No Impact Man
Food, Inc.
Chelsea on the Rocks
The Yes Men Fix the World

Treats on the big screen:

A Foreign Affair
Rosemary’s Baby
Imitation of Life (Sirk’s)
Le Doulos
The best movie watching experience of my life:
A restored print of The Gold Rush at Royce Hall.

It was an okay year I guess. I did not list the mediocre movies since there are too many of them and they are mostly forgettable. There’s still 6 weeks left in the year, and, since it’s Oscar Hopeful Rollout Season, I doubt this list will change much. Also, I’m sure I’m leaving out some films, but that’s another list for another day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's the end of the decade and you know what that means:

lists and more lists.

While there were many, many great movies this decade, I had to settle on one. My first choice would have been Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but since I'm always quoting from Ghost World (Dir: Terry Zwigoff, 2001, that was a more obvious and personal choice.

The trials and tribulations of teenagers all over the world are beautifully summarized in the old Zen saying: "Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on." It fully applies to recent high school graduates Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), best friends who can't wait to say goodbye to all the "retards"--the popular kids who buy into the consumer culture. They are searching not only for their identity, but their place in a world dominated by plastic versions of interaction and satisfaction. In Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff bridges the imaginary gap between arthouse and mainstream filmmaking with a very funny and insightful look into the psyche of modern America. Through his characters, he shows us both the ugly and beautiful, the phony and the real, while trying to connect with something authentic.

Click here to continue….