Wednesday, October 31, 2007

10 tips for great cinematic shots

Here are ten tips I found for shooting great landscape photography (stills, of course). But I also discovered them to be useful rules of thumb for creating great, cinematic shots - even if you are doing a straight-to-YouTube piece. So, here they are - with some of the landscape-specific pointers edited out:

1. Maximize your Depth of Field

While there may be times that you want to get a little more creative and experiment with narrow depth of fields - the normal approach is to ensure that as much of your scene is in focus as possible. The simplest way to do this is to choose a small Aperture setting (a large number) as the smaller your aperture the greater the depth of field in your shots.

Do keep in mind that smaller apertures mean less light is hitting your image sensor at any point in time so they will mean you need to compensate either by increasing your ISO or lengthening your shutter speed (or both). Of course there are times when you can get some great results with a very shallow DOF. Know each well enough to know their effect and when best to use one or the other.

2. Look for a Focal Point

All shots need some sort of focal point to them. Focal points can take many forms and could range from a prop, object, person or part of a person, an animal, building or structure, a striking tree, a boulder or rock formation, a silhouette etc. Think not only about what the focal point is but where you place it. The rule of thirds might be useful here. Also, helps to think about what it means (JT's note).

3. Think Foregrounds

One element that can set apart your shots is to think carefully about the foreground of your shots and by placing points of interest in them. When you do this you give those viewing the shot a way into the image as well as creating a sense of depth in your shot.

4. Consider the Sky

Another element to consider is the sky. If you have a bland, boring sky - don’t let it dominate your shot and place the horizon in the upper third of your shot (however you’ll want to make sure your foreground is interesting). However if the sky is filled with drama and interesting cloud formations and colors - let it shine by placing the horizon lower. Consider enhancing skies either in post production or with the use of filters (for example a polarizing filter can add color and contrast).

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5. Lines

One of the questions to ask yourself as you compose a shot is ‘how am I leading the eye of those viewing this shot’? There are a number of ways of doing this (foregrounds is one) but one of the best ways into a shot is to provide viewers with lines that lead them into an image. Lines give an image depth, scale and can be a point of interest in and of themselves by creating patterns in your shot.

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6. Capture Movement

Conveying movement in an image will add drama, mood and create a point of interest. Capturing movement generally means you need to look at a longer shutter speed (sometimes quite a few seconds). Of course this means more light hitting your sensor which will mean you need to either go for a small Aperture, use some sort of a filter or even shoot at the start or end of the day when there is less light.

7. Work with the Weather

Many beginners see a sunny day and think that it’s the best time to go out with their camera - however an overcast day that is threatening to rain might present you with a much better opportunity to create an image with real mood and ominous overtones. Look for storms, wind, mist, dramatic clouds, sun shining through dark skies, rainbows, sunsets and sunrises etc and work with these variations in the weather rather than just waiting for the next sunny blue sky day.

8. Work the Golden Hours

I chatted with one photographer recently who told me that he never shoots during the day - his only shooting times are around dawn and dusk - because that’s when the light is best and everything comes alive.

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9. Think about Horizons

It’s an old tip but a good one - always consider the horizon on two fronts.
- Is it straight? - while you can always straighten images later in post production it’s easier if you get it right in camera.
- Where is it compositionally? - a compositionally natural spot for a horizon is on one of the thirds lines in an image (either the top third or the bottom one) rather than completely in the middle. Of course rules are meant to be broken - but I find that unless it’s a very striking image that the rule of thirds usually works here.

10. Change your Point of View

Take a little more time with your shots - particularly in finding a more interesting point of view to shoot from. Explore the environment and experiment with different view points and you could find something truly unique.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How To Create Like A Cinematic Genius...

I know, I know. This is a terribly pretentious blog title...and a bit misleading. I don't actually hold the magic key to creating cinematic genius. But I do have some insights culled from various places that I find remarkably useful in helping me conceive of things, at the very least, in a fresh light.

First of all, let's clarify my definition of genius work. It is work that is both stunningly original/distinctive, but also deeply relevant to the universal human experience. Clearly, it is the work of someone who sees the world in a way that others do not, but in a way that makes sense to the rest of us on a profound level.

Most people see the thinking process behind math/science and that behind art as polar opposites. Not so, at all. In fact, the kind of thinking that produces genius mathematicians and scientists is precisely the same as that which creates genius artists. Therefore, many of the approaches to creative thinking listed below come from the math/science world - since the way those geniuses approach their work has been more often studied than the way artists approach their work. Nonetheless, they are relevant to filmmakers if you really have the ambition to create cinematic genius - or at least to create stuff we haven't seen a bazillion times before.

1. Understand what has come before, but don't be a slave to it.

All great mathematicians and scientists were well-educated in their fields - or thoroughly self-educated. The same is true of artists. They understand their craft. They are educated in the art of it. But they are not chained to the things that they learn. In fact, they are eager to explore ways to take what has come before and re-purpose it, re-conceive it, re-invent it...or totally deconstruct it. But you have to understand the forms and formulas to effectively make use of them and, ultimately, move past them. Watch a ton of great films. Discuss them with others. Take classes in understanding the aesthetics and language of film. Read film critiques (not bone-headed reviews) - anything that takes you inside the construction of a great film. Then have the vision and ambition to establish your own brand of genius.

2. Look at the "problem" of creating your film in many different ways.

Let's face it. Creativity is problem-solving. You are trying to express something and/or tell a story. The problem facing you is how to best tell it/express it. You may then think, "well, this is not math or science, there is no singular solution, so how can you think of it as problem-solving?" But there is a singular solution. That singular solution is the one that BEST expresses your idea - that best tells the story in a way that only YOU can tell it. Reaching it takes examining the myriad of options in front of you by creating an endless menu of possibilities for yourself from which to choose. Let no idea be too ridiculous or irrelevant to pass through your brain. In fact, dig for unusual solutions. You will soon learn how to restructure the problem in many different ways. This will push you past the limiting prejudices in your thinking. Often, the problem itself is reconstructed and becomes a new one. And eventually, all of this leads to the solution that speaks to your soul - and the collective one of your audience.

3. Make novel combinations. Combine, and recombine, elements into different combinations no matter how incongruent or unusual.

The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based came from the Austrian monk Grego Mendel, who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science. Mix and match your stories, characters, genres, visual ideas, etc. to form relationships and make connections between dissimilar elements. Da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. Samuel Morse invented relay stations for telegraphic signals when observing relay stations for horses. In film, Welles devised his visual strategy for the artufl bio-pic "Citizen Kane" from watching John Ford's classic western "Stagecoach". Genuis ideas are seldom wholly original. They often come from the original combination of pre-existing ideas.

4. Think in opposites.

Physicist Niels Bohr believed, that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought, and your mind moves to a new level. When you conceive of a visual idea, character or circumstance, imagine it's opposite. Invariably, you will also, without effort, conceive of every variation in between the two. You will also be able to look at the original idea in a completely new way.

5. Think metaphorically.

The capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together is a special gift. And visual metaphors are a ubiquitous component of cinematic genius. Thinnking/creating metaphorically is also an ability that can be nurtured. Watch movies and read work rich in metaphor - especially short stories and poems. Take a literature class (or read a book) on developing dynamic metaphors. But, most importantly, observe and think. All things in life are metaphors. People can be metaphors. Practice creating connections between people/things - a cop, a bug, a chair, a tree, a car crash, whatever - think of how the person/object or group of people/objects exist in the particular circumstance in which you are observing them. Then, think about how similar that existence is to some other situation, idea, emotion or theme.

6. Visualize!

When Einstein thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including using diagrams. He visualized solutions, and believed that words and numbers as such did not play a significant role in his thinking process. Well, this is even more true for filmmakers because this is a visual medium. But it is shocking to me how many filmmakers think in terms of words - the words on a page of a script. Move past the script even as you are writing it. See the film. See the scene. See the visual composition. See the detail within it. Place your various creative options within the context of that visualization and see how they play out. See them and feel them. Then, let your instincts guide you. For those for whom this is difficult, use pre-visualization tools - storyboards, photos, pre-viz software or shoot parts of scenes on video - anything to guide you in this process.

7. Produce! A distinguishing characteristic of genius is productivity.

Where is genius measured? Not in the thoughts in our head, but in the work we actually produce. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. How many have proved meaningful to us? Probably just a few. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci's massive body of accomplishments. Van Gogh painted over 800 canvases in his short lifetime (and sold only one). Filmmaking, of course, is very expensive and not something you can do quite as prolifically as painting. But you can explore your ideas on paper and on video. You can keep creating, keep combining, keep testing/experimenting. Only in this way will you bridge the gap between your potential for genius and the true realization of it.

8. Welcome Failure.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, creating stuff that sucks is an important step in creating genius work. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis found that the most respected scientists produced not only great works, but also many "bad" ones. They weren't afraid to fail, or to produce mediocrity in order to arrive at excellence. Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we are lead to do something else. This is a critical part of creative growth and exploration and we need to embrace it with gusto. Failure can be incredibly productive, but only if we do not focus on it as an unproductive result. Instead, analyze the process, its components, and how you can arrive at a different result. Do not ask the question "Why have I failed?", but rather "What have I done?"

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stumble Upon This

Just a quickie to share my newest internet obsession, which is Stumble Upon. It is a website aggregator that organizes sites that others have found interesting or cool. Then you can compile them on your own preference page and share with others. You can also select categories of sites you are most interested in. The sites come up randomly, so it's always exciting fun stumbling across what's out there.

Check it out!

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Feedback Screenings

Hopefully, it's clear already that I'm all about community. I don't get anything done - personally, professionally, politically...or creatively, of course - without community.

When I finish a script, I have to give it to others for feedback. And I do that at various stages - giving it to different kinds of people at each stage. I do the same when I am editing. When I made "Transaction", I actually gave it to two filmmakers - Elyse Couvillion and Gina Levy - who made their own cut. Why the hell not? I'm always surprised by filmmakers who get freaked out by others toying with their films. We're all cutting digitally these days, so we can easily create duplicate files without affecting the "original" nor wasting any resources. You can use or not use whatever you discover in the alternate versions. Why not steal some great ideas from other talented (and generous) filmmakers and claim them as your own?

Anyway, I know people who are very protective of their work, and that's not wrong, either. Everybody has their own process. However, if you are not innately a cinematic genius, you won't create cinematic genius relying strictly on your own instincts.

Working within a community, on the other hand, may help in this regard, but it does demand a couple of things other than genius - clarity and strength. To be able to benefit from feedback without being overwhelmed by it, you need to have a strong sense of your project with a fairly clear vision - or at least, an ability to recognize what elements, when they arrive, will take it to the next level. In this way, you can take the feedback and use only what is relevant to you without bouncing around responding this way and that to the various pieces of feedback. (see my previous blog: Learning To Manage Feedback).

Anyway, the other night, my friend and FA comrade Michaela Von Schweinitz held a screening at FA of her new feature: "Diary of a Third Grade Teacher". - based on the experiences of Musician/Teacher Sabrina Stevenson and co-written by Sabrina and Karen Aschenbach. I won't comment on it because it's still in the early stages and I'm not sure how much information they want to get out about it. But I did want to briefly describe the process. Michaela showed the film at the FA offices, where we have a little projector and sound system. She invited an eclectic mix of hand-picked folks - about 15 or so - then put together a questionnaire for us to fill out afterward. She and her husband also made food for everyone and brought drinks. I've done many of these and this one was particularly well-organized and considerate of the participants.

We all watched the film, then wordlessly filled out the questionnaires. I had hoped there might be some open discussion, but with eating/drinking, screening and writing the evening had grown quite late. Many had to leave, but some of us did stick around and chat, however, and the ideas were exciting. The questionnaires were submitted anonymously, so hopefully everyone was usefully honest. I know I was. Not brutally, just usefully. This, by the way, is a new term of mine that I intend to apply to all aspects of my life. There is a certain inconsideration, selfishness and even cruelty in much unrestrained honesty. I prefer people being honest with me only to the degree that it benefits me somehow, even if that truth is painful. I guess you can argue that even cruel, seemingly purposeless feedback can be beneficial even if it is just to remind you that you don't want to get feedback from that person anymore. But time is short. Life is short. I'd rather skip that step, if possible. So, now, I engage in what I am terming useful honesty and try to solicit the same from others.

Anyway, Michaela was pretty nervous beforehand and I'm sure wading through all that feedback was a bit of a task. But hopefully she read all of the things she needed to read and processed them to her (and the film's) benefit. I know there was a lot of good energy and good ideas in that room. It was truly a community, if just for one night, and the collective creative power of that community was, for me, very evident and very inspiring.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brynne's Monthly Music 1

I'm musically illiterate, so I get all of my musical awarenesses/suggestions from friends. One of my friends, Brynne, is especially keen to stuff that's out there and has very broad but demanding musical tastes. I like that. So, thought I'd share it with you as she shares it with me....(these are songs, not albums)....

M. Ward - "Headed for a Fall" (To Go Home EP - 2007)

Kings of Leon - "On Call" (Because of the Times - 2007)

Sound Dimension Band - "Run Run Version" (Studio One Dub Vol. 2 - 2007)

Gotan Project - "Mi Confesion" (Lunatico LTD Edition - 2006)

PJ Harvey - "Silence" (White Chalk - 2007)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rob Nilsson inspires at Mill Valley Film Fest

I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival this weekend for the premiere of two of Rob Nilsson's films "Used" and "Go Together". We are friends and supporters of each other and share similar beliefs about the purpose and potential of cinema.

But I also support Rob's filmmaking for another reason - one that reaches far beyond our personal relationship and speaks to new paradigms of creative and social interaction.

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If you looked up independent filmmaker on wikipedia, it really should show Rob's picture. He is the true and quintessential independent filmmaker. He eschews the limits of conventional film grammar, choosing to explore the raw essence of humanity as cinematic poetry and working with a full palette of blemishes, contradictions, discomforts and dysfunctions.

In the process, he uses whatever means necessary to realize his work and will invite any kindred soul along for the ride. He's resourceful, but in service of a true creative agenda and not any ulterior ego or profit-driven motive.

Finally, he doesn't sit around pining for some inept, crass distribution outfit (which almost all of them are) that offers nothing of value to either the public or the filmmaker. He makes his films available directly to audiences through festivals and special screenings - as well as through his own DVD distribution. He continually works to build his audience, enlisting people every time he screens someplace to join the 15,000 - the body of supporters and/or appreciators who form the bulk of his potential revenue stream. (Go to Citizen Cinema).

And he has been doing this for years. Many years. And will not stop doing it anytime soon.

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Rob tends to see himself as simply an artist and educator (with an admittedly strong opinion about the current dysfunctional "indie film" paradigm). However, I see him as a social revolutionary. He doesn't just operate outside the bounds of any traditional structure by necessity, he does it by choice and blazes as many trails as possible to make it work. Supporting that choice, includes building a viable alternative paradigm that will directly connect an artist to his/her audience. Many claim to be trying to do that (google, youtube, myspace), but they are really just trying to control that connection. It can only really be revolutionized by individuals like Rob. And once he - or others like him in this and other disciplines - figure it out, then others will follow and we will truly begin to see a re-configuring of the current social AND economic dynamic (check out The Long Tail Theory).

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Anyway, the Mill Valley Film Festival has been a strong supporter of Rob's work and, in doing so, has proven itself a heroic champion of "citizen cinema". So, I make it a point to support both Rob and the festival. And it's a damn good festival by the way, from a filmmakers' perspective (I had "Egg" there in 2001 and "Transaction" in 2005). So, me, FA member Cain DeVore (who acts, and is great, in "Used") and FA Vice-Prez Amanda Sweikow took the drive up to the fest for the two back-to-back premieres on Saturday night.

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It was, as we expected, a wonderful night. The audience was filled with Rob's extended filmmaking family and many of the players in his films. These were the last films to premiere of the 9@Night series that Rob began back in 2000 - born out of the marriage of creative and personal exploration. The films in the series are "Direct Action" films - a filmmaking process that Rob describes for the audience by presenting the graphic below before each film.

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Rob's films are clearly not for everybody. Nor are they intended to be. He does not make films for the lowest common denominator. Nor does he make them for snide "indie" insiders or the so-called cultural elite. He makes them for those that can appreciate his particular brand of cinematic poetry. I admit to being challenged at times by Rob's work. Even in my favorite films of his, I can have an issue with this or that moment - or this or that idea. But for me, that is precisely what makes them special. These moments and ideas are always rendered with his unique artistry and with a depth of feeling and honesty that you will absolutely not see in any other film. Because this is HIS film with his skills, intentions, artistic choices, etc. at play. By definition, there will be diversity in our responses to this kind of work and that is why they are a necessary antidote to the corporate product that clogs up our theaters and elicits scientifically engineered - Pavlovian - responses in its audiences.

That being said, I loved both of these films for very different reasons. Will they play in Peoria? They definitely could to a few brave souls....and, hopefully, will.

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I was struck by many things while watching the films, of course - the aesthetics, the "Direct Action" process, the huge journey of the entire series of films and many other things. But one especially striking thing was to be reminded of what a great actor Rob is. It's fun to see him work in that capacity because he brings such subtle depth and complexity to even the most minor appearances on the screen. It's no wonder he is so strong with actors. The other especially striking thing was the sense of completion I felt as the credits rolled on "Go Together". I was suddenly hit full in the face with what an amazing accomplishment this whole series of films had been. And I remembered back to when Rob first told me about them (having only done 3 of them) and my feeling that this was a rather impossible feat that may never see fruition. But here they were - realized just as they were conceived.

The fact that these were the last films in that series to roll out gave the evening a special poignancy and Rob was visibly moved after the end of "Go Together" when the audience rose to give him a standing ovation.

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I don't want to ghetto-ize Rob by labeling him an intellectual, but he is by and large a serious man and a serious thinker. But he is also incredibly passionate and that passion translates to less serious pursuits like drinking, flirting and laughing which we all did in abundance at the after party - first at the Broken Drum, then until the wee hours at the home of David, one of the actors in "Used" and "Go Together" who's also a musician.

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Reflecting on the night during the drive home, I couldn't help but feel deeply appreciative - not just of my friendship with Rob, but of the very fact of his work and that of all those around him. The 9@Night film series is truly a monumental accomplishment...and experiment - no matter how you respond to the films themselves. Rob's risk-taking, both in the films' aesthetics and in their management is and will continue to pay huge dividends to all of us who can conceive of a creative landscape where it is possible to see cinema as art and aspire to create something that means more to our souls than our egos - something that resonates within us - and out to the world around us - without the slavery of profit and pretension.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finding time to write

6 a.m.

Meeting my friend and creative collaborator Sean Hood at Venice Grind coffee house for our weekly writing appointment. Sometimes, showing up for it makes me say one thing..."Ouch".

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Finding time to write, or create in any way, is always very challenging. Even though I often call myself a "filmmaker" and swear up and down that creating is the essence of who I am. Yet, I get so caught up in the mundane minutiae of daily existence, escapist entertainments and social/professional obligations that I make precious little time to do the thing that I claim is at the core of my being. Kinda f#@%ed up, eh? But apparently, not unusual.

I meet creative being after creative being, and few of them - there are many notable exceptions - give themselves as much creative time as they'd like. It's like some kind of odd self-punishment. It's also a lot like sex. Most of us love sex. As a culture, we're obsessed with it. If you put up a video on youtube and include "art" in the tag words, you'll get about 5 hits. If you put "sex", you'll get about 500,000 hits.

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Yet, for all the constant sexual imagery that surrounds us and exists in our thoughts/fantasies, how often do we actually have sex? Not very, according to statistics. It is not uncommon for married couples to have sex only once a month. And that is a lot compared to people who aren't in relationships (porn actors excepted, of course). Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we love to get ourselves excited, then deny gratification? Maybe we like the idea of things a hell of a lot more than actually doing them.

I know that's how I feel about writing. I love noodling around in my head about stories, ideas. I love talking about them. I love planning to write them. I like sitting in this coffee shop. But do I actually love facing the challenge of the blank page and trying to lay down any ideas of distinction and value? NO! I hate it.

But I am compelled to do it. The feeling of not doing it is worse than actually doing it. That's some way to live, huh? The whole tortured artists cliche, like all cliches, definitely has some truth to it. Am I a tortured soul? I don't think so, but it is torture getting up at six f&#@ing a.m. to write - never knowing if a single f#@%ing word is even worth the effort it takes to move my fingers.

But Sean and I do it every week (almost every week). We aren't writing something together. He writes his stuff and I write mine. But by being beholden to each other to show up, we are pushing each other to make time to create. Because I know if I didn't do this, I would never write. I would have the cleanest house, the cleanest car, all my receipts filed, all my emails answered and many, many blog entries (like this one). But I wouldn't create. I would just dream about it.....

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Top 5 Jobs To Do As A Filmmaker

Here's my list of the top 5 things to do if you want to pay the bills and continue your life as a filmmaker. I mean, you can do any job and still make films if you have the passion and determination. But it you're a borderline slacker like me, you want the job to have at least some, if not all, of these attributes:

* Relatively good pay and relatively short hours. Or at least, a lot of flexbility.
* Won't wipe you out creatively.
* Exposure to information and/or resources and/or people that can help you make your film.
* Exposure to creatively inspiring work.

None of the jobs below meet all of these criteria. And these may or may not be able to pay for your films, depending on the length and budget of the films you are trying to make. But they will put food on the table without sapping your precious bodily fluids while you do your hustle. These are just mine, by the way, based on my own experience. I challenge you all out there to come up with better alternatives....

1. A Dogwalker. Low barrier of entry. Have legs, can walk dogs. Just put up some flyers and the calls will come. I love dogs, so of course, this is at the top of my list. But it also demanded little of me and gave me time to think, plan, etc. I was able to start Filmmakers Alliance AND make films. Oh, and did I mention the dogs were fabulous?

2. A Bartender. Somewhat low barrier of entry - gotta compete with a lot of actors in LA and NY. Did this for 10 years. Can be a fun job - not nearly as horrendously miserable as waiting tables. Good pay for the amount of hours. Lots of people, lots of stories. And the job stays behind when you walk out the door.

3. Festival Work. Moderate barrier of entry as festivals always need volunteers. Great work can move you into a paid gig. Then, you can work at numerous festivals throughout the year without having to work every day. Not much pay, but you can get by and it offers great exposure to other filmmakers and potentially great films (depending on the programming). And if you never make a film, it's a really fun lifestyle, nonetheless.

4. Any industry job with reasonable hours that doesn't follow you home. Moderate barrier of entry. Could be a straight 8 hour day, could be freelance work, could be seasonal. It never hurts to work in an environment that gives you exposure to the people and resources that can help you make your film. But, be careful. Many industry jobs are all-consuming..even PA work (at least it is freelance).

5. Teaching, consulting or part-time professional work. High barrier of entry. You'll need to be educated and/or have practiced your area of expertise for a number of years before you can get away with this. I lumped these three together because they are similar in that way. But if you are truly skilled/experienced you have value - meaning information/skill that people are willing to pay for. Sometimes pay a lot. If you are a lawyer or doctor, your per hour charges can be ridiculously excessive - allowing you to make a lot of money in short periods of time, thereby freeing you to pursue your filmmaking life.

And, of course, there's always...

....Independent Wealth. This can happen by birth, inheritance, insane luck or homicidal greed. Every once in awhile it happens to guys named Ben and Jerry who just happen to make good stuff and do nice things.

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The things we do for love and money...

We had our monthly FA meeting on Sunday night. For those of you who don't know what goes on at an FA meeting besides incantations, ritual sacrifice and group sex, I'll lay it out for you:

Starting at 5 p.m., there is a potential member info session followed at 5:45 by a free seminar on some kind of filmmaking topic given by an accomplished professional (who may or may not be an FA member). Then, at 7:30, there is the regular member meeting where we discuss all the stuff going on in and around FA as well as update people on cool filmmaking events around town and across the country. We also check in with each and every member, finding out what they've been up to, what projects they're working on an what support they need. Then, around 9:15, we watch whatever films members have brought to show and finish off the night with a little beer/wine/snack reception. The whole thing is a 5 to 6 hour night, but it is fun, informative and inspiring - and it's only once a month.

Anway, as members got us up to date with what's going on in their lives, I found myself wondering what so many of them do to pay the rent. Clearly, they were in the room for the love (or obsession, but what's the difference). But to do the thing they love (make films) they have to do something to make money.

Coincidentally, the very next day, I had a phone meeting with our new partner in FA productions - who, by the way, is a semi-retired investment manager who never again has worry about how to pay his bills. As we discussed strategy for FA Productions and the type of capitalization it needs, I found myself wondering "how did it come to this?". How did I become a money-man, fundraiser, producer and entrepreneur? I was (and still am) a filmmaker/creative being and that simply cannot be more opposed energetically to money-hustling.

Or can it?

Well, there is definitely a different energy at play when one is creating "art" than when one is creating money. But the two are so interdependent - especially in a medium as expensive as film. And it is really no different in any art form. Everyone from Michaelangelo to Picasso (and zillions before and after) has hustled to find "patronage" - financial support that allows them to create. They all either became commercially successful artists or were successful at finding wealthy individuals/organizations/governments/corporations who would support their work.

A gift for attracting money is definitely a must in filmmaking and every working filmmaker I know of has tapped into it somehow, created it for themselves or were just lucky enough to be born into it. But how does one tap into it or create it for themselves if they, like most of us, aren't lucky enough to be born into it?

Of course, because filmmaking is so often referred to as the film BUSINESS, people often try to make a business out of their filmmaking - either by creating films they think will be commercially successful or by engaging in some tangential income-earning endeavor - from producing/packaging films for studios, to editing films to holding seminars to working at festivals to working in a rental house, etc., etc.

But for my money (bad pun intended), putting your energy into creating a commercially successful film is a huge crapshoot that most often fails, especially if you are not organically inclined to create such films. And even if you are, you need to find money to live while you write/find such a project and then you need to attract money so it can be made.

And doing tangential "industry" work may put food on the table, but it rarely if ever earns enough to fund your films (unless they are shorts) and often times sucks so much energy out of you, you have nothing left for creating.

But attracting money is not so much about what you do to bring it to you, anyway. It's all about mindset. Then, you work from that mindset to ALLOW money to come to you. And what is that mindset? Well, I can only speak from my own experience, but I've found it is a combination of the following ways of thinking. And in this thinking, the energy around being a great creator of art and great attractor of money does not seem so diametrically opposed:

1. I have to be doing what I'm doing (making films). I was born to do it and I will shrivel up and die if I don't.

2. In making films, I am bringing something new and/or important into the world that must have its birth. It doesn't seem to matter if this is true or not in any objective sense, just that you believe it to be true. Of course, if you truly believe this and apply it to the creation of your films, you will demand the most from yourself and indeed will be compelled to find what is distinctive in your aesthetic and develop it.

3. I deserve support for my filmmaking. If #1 and #2 are true, then of course, so is #3. Have you ever noticed the sense of entitlement that a lot of rich people have? That they always expect to get what they want? Part of that is indeed because they have money, but part of it is because they don't know what it's like to not have money - to not get what they want. Therefore, they carry themselves like they expect to get what they want and deserve it. This has an affect on others around them. You need to carry that same energy and affect anyone that might consider giving you money.

4. My passion has value. Of course, many bad filmmakers and out-n-out nuts believe this. The line between genius and madness is indeed thin. But this belief is a pre-requisite, nonetheless. If your passion has worth, it will be supported - financially and otherwise. But it can only have worth if you first believe it. Your passion will be necessary to push everything forward and to draw people and resources to you. If you don't think it has worth, no one else will.

5. There is enough out there for me. Do you get jealous when you hear of others making films and doing the stuff you want to be doing? Get over it. Instead, celebrate it. Use it as a model - as a personal message to you that the life you want is not just possible, but achievable. There is plenty of money out there and a lot of people get to use it. They don't deserve it any more or any less than you do (provided #1, 2 3, and 4 are true, however).

Yes, there are lots of other subtle and practical things that I can include, but these are the big five. If you can develop and hold these beliefs, then ACT (or make decisions) in accordance with them, you WILL attract money. No ifs, ands or buts about it. If #1 is true, then you will create. If #2 is true, you will create at a high level. If #3 is true, that creativity will demand support. If #4 is true, that support will attach real value to what you are doing. And finally, if #5 is true, there is no lack of support available. Everything you need will come to you.

Is this all just fantasy? Try it and find out. So far, it's working for me.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Celebrity-itis on the Darjeeling Ltd.

So, I went to the premiere of "The Darjeeling Limited" last night at the Academy theater.

What was I doing at one of those big-shot events, you wonder? I asked myself the same question when I was actually there, but the path to getting there ran through FA member George Zaver who's hooked up with these kind of "indiewood" productions and even studio sized productions. He works for Nielsen/NRG - technically in "film marketing" a sort of murky catch-all phrase that comprises the black ops of studio filmmaking. They will bring the film to a potential audiences' awareness by any means necessary. He specifically manages test market screenings and is able to get me into all kinds of screenings and events that I would otherwise never even hear about - much less be invited.

So, there I was. And there was a movie (preceded by a shorter movie). And celebrities. And drinks and food. And a lot of weird, if occasionally great-looking people. And that was that. I always think I'd be misssing something if I don't go to these things when invited. And then I go, and I realize I wouldn't have missed a thing. But I never seem to learn. Here's the important facts: The booze was just beer and wine, but nice beer and wine. And not much of a wait to get it. The food was disappointing, however. Small, mostly cold finger foods - not the scrumptious Indian food banquet I had been fantasizing about throughout the film.

Hollywood people are indeed weird-looking. The Studio Class, as I like to call them, has a particular style and energy that just feels weird to me. Too much stuff. Surgery, botox, jewelry, make-up, hair care, expensive clothes/shoes, fancy watches, high-tech gadgetry, etc. Everyone looks slightly dazed and desperate, like Ken and Barbie dolls come to life and wondering how the hell they got where they are, then feigning smarmy arrogance to cover that fact.

But I stumbled across a few FA comrades, particularly nice ones, which added a welcome surprise to the night. I also saw in the credits that (almost) original FA Member Colleen Bachman was the post supervisor on the film - which looked great. I remember when she got her first job in post - working as an assistant for another FA member, Phyllis Nix.

I also ran into long-time buddy Matthew Greenfield, producer of all of Miguel Arteta's films and now an exec at Fox Searchlight - a very smart and genuinely good and straight-up guy. Nice to know a guy like him can thrive in that world. Finally, I said "hi" to Jason Schwartzman, another really good guy who presented our Vision Award to madman David O. Russell at one of our VisionFest events a couple of years ago and still seems to hold fond memories of the evening. Nice to know.

But those anomalies aside, there's no doubt from the the type of crowd in attendance that this was a studio film. However, Wes Anderson - who also seems like a sincerely decent guy - is extremely talented and has a distinctive aesthetic perspective that is always at play in his films. This is why I am growing to hate the term "independent film". Who knows what it means anymore? Especially when I see "indie films" that are just cheap versions of crappy studio films and studio films that are distinctive and singular (although there are not very many of those, of course).

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Oh, yeah, about the movie...I found the film to be far from Wes Anderson's best work and although it pokes gentle fun at the "white man as spiritual tourist in exotic lands" kinda thing, it still has a certain annoying sense of privilege and entitlement without the emotional hooks that might make you ignore that feeling. It feels very slight and cleverly shallow - a film made by a hip rich white kid for hip rich white people (even if Wes Anderson is not hip or rich - I have no idea, frankly). It also suffers from celebrity-itis. Way to many "cool" celebrities in clever, but distracting little cameos that makes it feel like the film itself is winking at you.

But the guy is talented and singular, so there is still much there to be admired. The film was surprisingly preceded by a short film Wes Anderson somehow managed to squeeze out of the budget (it certainly didn't look cheap). It was sexy, stylish and vaguely mysterious. It is apparently a sort of "prequel" to the feature. Was it about anything? Who knows? Who cares? It was short. And captivating, nonetheless. Glad we got to see it.

I went home tipsy and out-of-sorts. Not remembering one second of the night the minute I greeted my dog, Yahtey at the door.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The First Of Many...

So, I'm diving into this whole blog thing. Seems to be some demand for it, although I often wonder where people find the time to read blogs, comment on them, listen to and download music, watch youtube videos, surf myspace and/or other community/dating sites, play video games, watch regular television (cable stations, of course) or any other myriad of activities that seem to emcompass the new models of human activity.

This, of course, does not include the traditional things that are still somewhat in vogue like reading a book, engaging in real person-to-person conversations, taking walks, going out for dinner and...of course....watching a movie. Time just seems to be in such short supply when you are a filmmaker - constantly scrounging to keep a roof over your head while developing projects and, if you're lucky, shooting them, completing them and then getting them out into the world.

Hopefully, this blog will provide some insight into how I make it happen and ways that you might create or maintain your own life as a filmmaker.

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Good timing to start this because I just got back from NY where I was at the IFP Market - an annual pilgrimage that I always love, but that always reminds me of both the joys and horrors of a filmmakers life. Here's a few quick observations:

- The IFP Market is always fun and exciting. It can also be odd and dispiriting. In good measue because the filmmakers are collectively driven by equal parts inspiration and desperation. Both generate a lot of passion but affect you in completely contradictory ways.

- Also, this disparate mix of energies comes from some of the realities of the market itself. So many projects, so little money (and other kinds of support). Of course, not all projects should get money and support. But there are so many accomplished folks involved and on panels, yet so little real direction, information and support. Of course, the IFP Market folks have to wrangle in these accomplished folks or no one would attend the conference. But so few of them have any real relevance nor offer any truly relevant information to nascent filmmakers. Still there is always those projects that find support and that little gem of info that squeaks out...and that's all that's needed to maintain the sense of hope and enthusiasm.

- Filmmakers, as a whole, have incredibly active and vibrant imaginations. The downside is that they are often unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality in how they approach the realization of their projects and how they conduct their filmmaking lives. Nonetheless, the market is a huge confluence of talent. Hearing about their projects and feeling their passion is very infectious.

- I love NY. Especially in the spring - even though it is horribly over-priced.

- Being from L.A., the indie film community in NY makes me incredibly jealous.

- Filmmakers, as a whole, prefer schmoozing to dancing. Understood, but it would really be great if we could find some way to do both.

Well, that's it. My inaugural blog. Not especially brilliant observations, but I'm jet-lagged. Also, I am going to put up a number of articles and eblasts that I'd put out earlier in other places. I will label them in such a way that you now that are somewhat archival blogs. But, some great stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

That wasn't so bad, after all. Let's see if I can keep it up. See ya next time.


Links To More Articles N' Stuff....

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I also write a regular column for the FA Magazine called Collectively Speaking. Also, have done a few other assorted articles...

Here are the links to the isssues of FA Magazine that has them:

Collectively Speaking - Spring 05 - "Film, Politics, and The Art of Garbage" where I rant about making choices as a filmmaker.

Collectively Speaking - Fall 05 - "I Am, Therefore I Film" - Where I define what it means to be a filmmaker.

Collectively Speaking - Spring 06 - “Why We’re All Sick Of Crappy Movies And What We’re Finally Going To Do About It!” - The title says it all.

Collectively Speaking - Fall 06 - Where I go on and on about filmmakers and their egos and how to make the most of your own. Also, a great Part 1 article about the self-distribution of our feature film "The Dogwalker".

Collectively Speaking - Spring 07 - Where I insist we "Pull Together!" and extoll the virtues of collectivism. Also, Part 2 of our adventures self-distributing "The Dogwalker".

Collectively Speaking - Fall 07 - Where I harangue about change and how it benefits a filmmaker.

Old Stuff: End of Dogwalker Theatrical Distribution (2006)

Well, as of last Thursday, Oct. 5th, 2006 our commercial theatrical run of "The Dogwalker" is complete. Whew! You have no idea how much it takes out of you while you're deep in it. But it hit me when it was over and it's taking me a few days to recover. What a great experience on many levels, but most importantly for my filmmaking community, it was an amazing learning experience - the fruits of which I will share with you over time.

Now that the dust is settling, however, there are two over-riding feelings coming up for me. One is appreciation, of which I wrote in last month's eblast. And the other, now that I am recharging, is suddenly rising up powerfully - something I can only define as determination. Not only determination to see that "The Dogwalker" reaches its widest possible audience in its next phase of release (DVD), but determination to help establish a system/infrastructure of production-distribution-exhibition that will allow all truly independent films to reach their widest possible audience.

The current "system" clearly does not support this because "systems" are antithetical to truly independent cinema, and mainstream media and traditional commercial exhibition are, of course, beholden to protect the "system" - to the detriment or dismissal of truly independent cinema. But that's fine because mainstream media and traditional commercial exhibition are part of an irrelevant paradigm for us. What we need is a structure, not a system, with accessible information and resources, along with a network of mutually benefitting independent partners.

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But we'll talk in more detail about all of that in future blogs. For now, I just want to return to this feeling of determination - which is much different than a want, desire or even a need. Determination is like want, desire and need sharpened into an effective tool. It's more action-oriented and therefore extraordinarily empowering. Determination for me is part passion, part ambition, part persistence, part obsession, part blind foolishness and ultimately a refusal to settle for what's dished out to me (or what I dish out to myself). Determination is an amazing tool and an essential part of any indie filmmaker worth their salt. But like any tool, it works best in service of focused and meaningful goals - especially if these goals are present at the very outset of a film project and carry all the way through from idea development to final release (DVD, VOD, whatever). Determination can then attach itself to every goal of every step in the process.

Sometimes, something challenging, daunting or humbling is just what is needed to turn on the faucet of our determination. At least, that's what's doing it for me. But however it comes up in you, I urge you to tap it and let it flow through you unrestrained. Be determined to make your film (or the next one). Better yet, be determined to make a film that reaches the highest level of your creative potential and expresses your unique talent and voice. And our shared determination will see to it that it reaches the widest possible audience - one that is most assuredly waiting for it.

Old Stuff: Dogwalker Distribution (2006)

As you know, my wife Diane and I are dancing around the country distributing our first feature "The Dogwalker". It has been quite an experience - part of which you can read about in another soon-to-be-posted blog - from which we have already learned an immense amount. And still more to learn. Much of what we are learning, however, has been about ourselves.

Filmmakers, even more so than many creative people, constantly need to do periodic reality checks. Our imaginations and actual productions are so incredibly expansive that our expectations for the success of what we create can't help but explode beyond the bounds of reality. In our case. we've experienced some incredible highs and painful lows during the distribution of our film and have noticed that the lows have only hit us hardest when they are the product of unrealized (or under-realized) expectation. However, guess what remains when we remove the expectation. Appreciation. Yes, it's the old glass half-full/half-empty perceptual axiom. There's always two ways to feel about a situation. Intellectually you can examine it from either perspective (or both). But when it comes to what kind of emotion it produces in you, would you rather feel appreciation for what is or disappointment about what is not? A no-brainer, in my mind. Especially if the other option is disappointment born from unrealistic expectation.

How many times have I talked to filmmakers devastated that their film was not accepted to this or that festival? That it wasn't "sold" into distribution. And/or that it simply didn't turn out in any other way as they expected. Many of us are first-time filmmakers. In my case, a first-time feature filmmaker. But filmmaking is a complex art, a process, that takes years of experience to master. There are always exceptions, of course (the things you always hear about in the media), but I'm sure everyone from Van Gogh to Ed Wood did not expect the earth to move for them after their first efforts. But we filmmakers create these kind of expectations all the time. For more reasons than I can get into right now.

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But even if our first work is brilliant, we cannot manage the public's reaction to it. They have have their own unfathomable ways of coming to embrace new creative work, with their aesthetic appetites often informed (and usually corrupted) by a very slick, cynical mainstream media. As noted, there are occasional exceptions, but if you are doing truly visionary work, it will take some time for advocates and gatekeepers of all sort to find you out. And it will take the general public even longer. So, for lack of a better phrase, we filmmakers need to get real.

We've screened for packed houses and relatively empty houses. And in the end both were just people seeing the film. We've had good reviews and bad reviews. And in the end, both were just people responding to the film. Neither praise nor scorn is the truth. The truth is the experience, not the expectation.

And reality brings us appreciation. Diane and I are in an amazing situation. That our film is getting a theatrical release and being reviewed - positively or negatively - is both statistically and emotionally incredible. But even rewinding it all backward, we are fortunate that it has played in festivals. Fortunate that it ever got made. Fortunate that we ever had a creative thought in our heads. If you've experienced any of these things then count yourselves as fortunate, too. Because in the end, being alive, present and appreciative is everything. Living as a creative being is a special gift aside from that. And the rest,...just gravy.

Old Stuff: Be Prolific

If you haven't figured it out by now, filmmaking can be dauntingly complex - financially, aesthetically and in a practical sense. So, I understand why so much time can pass between filmmaking projects or before even the first filmmaking project.

But, paradoxically, if you want to feel less daunted and really come to understand your art/craft/obsession/etc., you need to engage in it as often as possible. Here's the good news: there is no paradox. There is absolutely no reason not to be prolific. Technology has completely caught up with the pervasive desire to make films. Films have never been about money, with great films always having been more about story and ideas than about production cost. But now, that has never been more true. I am seeing more and more films getting made, now, for under $1,000 (shorts) and under $10,000 (features). Granted, most of them suck. But not because they don't look and/or sound good. It is usually because they are devoid of ideas or any real aesthetic. But there's nothing wrong with that. You have to stumble before you can dance. Remember, failure is to be embraced. Even a horrific film is a step ahead of no film at all.

Often filmmakers with little experience and an underdeveloped creative voice, but lots of chutzpah, mount lavish productions using personal and/or family money that, ultimately, wilts under the harsh light of their lack of experience and ideas. Which is all cool (part of the growth process), if it doesn't wipe them out financially and spiritually - stopping them from ever making another film. But you never even have to risk that. Give yourself the experience first. As I've said many times, filmmaking is a complex art that demands experience and education - if not formal education, then "street" education. Pick up a camera - any camera - and make something! Explore/refine your ideas. Develop your voice and aesthetic. Almost anyone you know has at least a consumer DV camera. Aside from your ideas, that's all you need - along with a few friends and a couple of lights (a decent mic wouldn't hurt, either). Make films as often as you possibly can. And challenge yourself with each one. Detach yourself from any expectation of them (see enote) other than to learn and grow as a filmmaker.

Musicians practice. Painters paint. Sculptors sculpt. But filmmakers try to raise money, go to seminars, go to screenings, join organizations, network and do every other damn thing except make movies! Even if you have made several movies - MAKE MORE! Don't let weeks, months, years pass by as you wait for the "right idea", "the right time" and/or the "right money" to make a film. The right money is whatever you have, the right idea is whatever is in your heart/mind/soul and the right time is NOW.

Old Stuff: Get It In Writing

Get it in writing

So, you're making a $7,000 feature and you ask your sister's boyfriend if you can shoot in his office for free. He's says sure. So, you plan your shoot around that fact and send him constant reminders only to show up and he's nonetheless forgotten, changed his mind, forgot to get permission or some other excuse that adds up to a lost location. And lost time/money for you. Maybe even bigger headaches.

This might not have happened if you had his commitment in writing. Not always, but putting things down on paper often holds people to a higher level of commitment. It has a way of solidifying the terms in a way that, alas, a verbal agreement or simple handshake cannot (these days, anyway). It doesn't need to be a formal contract drawn up by expensive lawyers, just a detail of the commitment that is being made that you both sign off on. It doesn't matter what it is, crew services, craft services, animals, locations, equipment, etc. By putting it down on paper, it begins to make it real for both you and them. It also clarifies exactly what is expected from you both. Often times, simple communication issues can create disappointment on both sides of the coin.

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Now, I realize it is a sticky situation to ask for everything to be put in writing. Some people get really weird about it. And in the situation I presented above, the guy's doing you a favor, he's a friend (or at least an acquaintance) and you don't want to freak him out by making it all too "businessy". But would you rather find out he's going to get cold feet at the agreement stage or when you show up with a crew? Often times, just asking people to put their promises/commitments/agreements down on paper separates those who will stand behind their word from those who are making empty, thoughtless promises.

The way to ask people to do this is simple: Tell them it is standard. You need these agreements for your record-keeping and if the production ever gets audited (which is not entirely untrue). You can say this to anyone - no matter who it is - your mother, sister, sister's boyfriend, boss, or some friend of a friend of a friend, etc. and they will understand it. It suggests to them that there is more at stake than you just being an anal-retentive paranoid (even though we know it is not too much more than that). In the end, having things down on paper has a strong psychological power as opposed to a legal one - although, in some worst case scenarios, any paperwork can't hurt. There will always be those who will let you down no matter how many pieces of paper they sign. But getting things down on paper puts the odds in your favor. The idea is to clearly know what resources that have been promised to you are for real and dependable and which ones are just a big cloud of smoke blown up your bum. Then, you can realistically plan your shoot and experience fewer nasty surprises.

Old Stuff: Give What You Want To Get

I hear a lot of filmmakers grousing about what isn't working for them, or in independent filmmaking as a whole. "My film didn't get into this &#*$ing festival or that &#*$ing festival!". "My film got in, but there were only 5 %$#*ing people in the audience!". "I can't find a *&^%$ing distributor!" "I found a distributor, but they haven't done a %$#@ing thing for me!". "The only $#@*ing thing I see in theaters is $#*@!". "Nobody cares about independent &#%*ing film!"

They are often quite surprised (and defensive) when I remind them that they probably have unwittingly contributed directly to the situation that disturbs them. The common response is often one of mild outrage, leading to a recounting of all of the work they have done for their film(s) and for themselves. Given all they are doing, how could they be held accountable for anything?

I admit, it is annoying to have someone like me point the finger back at you when you just want to vent. We all need to do it without shame from time to time. But it is also important to be aware that sometimes intense self-focus, no matter how much work it involves, can put us in a bubble, without any relationship to the world around us. When you are aggravated and/or disappointed by all around you, it's important to step back and ask yourself "What have I done to contribute to the situation?" Or, more importantly, "What have I not done to help create a world that will support my filmmaking?"

Without getting into new-agey spiritualism (not that there's anything wrong with that, but...), what you put out in the world is what you get back. What you support will support (or not support) you. Do you read scripts and offer feedback to filmmakers struggling as you have struggled (or are struggling)? Do you help the filmmakers making films you admire/respect/enjoy? Do you go see films of filmmakers doing the kind of work you hope to create (and for which you hope to have an audience)? Do you rent those DVD's? Do you attend festivals in which you hope your film will play? Do you then see the work of the other attending filmmakers?

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The idea of 'giving what you want to get' is not just a karmic concept, but has real practical viability. I've done it. I've seen it. When you start operating in this manner, it creates a ripple effect. You support a filmmaker, who then supports you. That filmmaker sees the benefit of having supported you and does it for someone else, who will also learn and pass on that energy, and so on, and so on. And if all filmmakers supported the films, filmmakers, festivals, publications, organizations, etc. that they care about, those are the ones that will thrive instead of the plethora of shams, scams and incompetents that currently dot our indie landscape.

It's important to be focused. It's even important to be self-focused, but broaden the concept of self-focus by considering your "self" as part of a larger community. Read other filmmakers scripts. Work on other filmmakers films. See other filmmakers films. Go pay to see films you want to support and/or buy their DVDs. Support meaningful filmmaking organizations and/or participate in their events. Attend/support festivals you care about. In the end, support your community so that it can support you! If you contribute to nurturing and sustaining the things in the world around you that you care about, they will survive to sustain you.

Old Stuff: The most boring blog post EVER - Do Your Paperwork!

Sure, I can hear ya: "Paperwork?! What's this talk about paperwork? I'm a filmmaker, not a bureaucrat!" Although ignorance can sometimes be bliss, it can also wind up sticking it to you harder than a 250-pound cellmate on Viagra.

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If you are shooting digitally with some actor friends, posting on your FCP, then showing the film at festivals, private screenings and family gatherings before putting it on the shelf, the idea of paperwork is probably foreign and even irrelevant to you. And if you have a big enough budget, there are A.D.s and UPMs and other such folk to shield you from the mundane drudgery of it all. But if you are doing a "professional" production - one you ultimately hope to distribute commercially - and the budget is south of half million, then you will indeed need to get your hands dirty with... *gasp!*...paperwork. As overwhelming as paperwork can seem, I would however, strongly suggest tackling it even for the $200 digital feature since you never know how any film is going to catch fire. And whatever time you save not doing paperwork will be lost 10 times over (along with money) when it comes time to deliver your film to the marketplace.

There are many, many reasons to do your paperwork, not the least of which is that most distributors (theatrical and/or home video) require E&O insurance and to get it, you need to have your paperwork in order. It will also ultimately protect you in a myriad of unforseen ways. What paperwork am I referring to? Well, I'm not an attorney nor a UPM, so the following is probably a partial list, off the top of my head, of paperwork you should at least consider addressing:

Chain of title paperwork (film copyright, script registration)
Investor agreements
Cast and crew agreements
Clearances (music, cast - including extras, location)
Production stuff (Call Sheets, camera reports, script notes, production logs, expense reports)
Union and/or Guild paperwork
Production Insurance paperwork

And tons more, I'm sure, but you get the idea. I especially like to do a production log, which for me, is a kind of daily diary of production. It's great as a reference, after the film is made, for production notes, interviews, DVD commentary or just plain ol' reminiscing. It can also help you if a crew member later claims something happened that didn't.

If you're working with guilds and/or getting production insurance, you need to jump on that paperwork early. There's a lot of it and some of it requires additional work on your part. Your shoot can completely fall apart if you don't have things squared away with your guilds and/or insurers prior to shooting. Also, if a location demands special wording in your insurance certificate, it may require special endorsements from the insurance carrier (not the broker) which can take several days to process. No special endorsement, no location. That can suck.

Much of the other paper work is either required for commercial release of your film and/or protects you from future legal and financial hassles. I know paperwork is a real pain in the ass, but try to think of it as a big, protective blanket over you. Of course, part of indie filmmakers is about about cutting corners, but cutting corners with paperwork creates holes in your blanket. When your film steps out into the big, bad world, you'd be amazed at how many hands reach through those holes to get at you. Am I paranoid? Probably. For good reason? Definitely.

Old Stuff: Crucial Oddities

Do you question your film? Do you ask the ESSENTIAL question - "What is my film about?" For me, this is a very different question than asking what happens in a film? When I ask myself the ESSENTIAL question, I am not asking for the catalogue of incidents that comprise my film. Nor am I simply asking about the film's thematics. I'm asking about ALL of it. What am I exploring? What am I challenging? What experience(s) am I trying to create? Why does my film need to exist? What is the core, uncompromisable essence of my film?

These are important questions no matter what kind of film you are making. The answers will guide you through the phalanx of creative and practical problems that emerge during the creation of the film. Answering them will help insure that when the dust settles on your filmmaking process, you will not only have exactly the film you wanted to make, but also a film no other could make.

Filmmaker Rob Nilsson (whom I profiled a couple of months ago) has a great term for that sometimes undefinable element that defines a film (or piece thereof) - the "crucial oddity". Think of the crucial oddity as that special element that not only sets your film apart from any other, but is its reason for existence. Crucial oddities can be found and/or nurtured in characters, scenes, moments, bits of dialogue and single shots. Crucial oddities are often forsaken in favor of some other shiny object - a beautiful shot, a great action sequence, the star magnitude of an actor, a witty line of dialogue - usually to the detriment of a film. The crucial oddity is what our films are truly about and we must discover them at every turn and protect them at all costs in order for our films to have their own unique voices.

Crucial oddities, however, can often be difficult to articulate and/or clarify intellectually. Asking some of the questions above will help bring them into focus for you, at least on an intuitive level, so that you can recognize them when they emerge. And you can develop your ability to spot them by looking for them in your personal, as well as your creative, life. What are the crucial oddities in the people/things in your life? What is the crucial oddity in you?

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Each new film project is a mysterious journey that inevitably involves tackling a set of ever-emerging questions. The key to creating an amazing film is simply knowing the most important questions to ask then doing what is necessary to address them. Don't be afraid to ask yourself the ESSENTIAL question, then follow where your answers take you.

Old Stuff: Avoid The Star Trap

I don't know how many financing and distribution seminars I've sat in on where filmmakers were sold on the importance of putting a "name" or a "star" in a film to make it more attractive to potential buyers/audiences. The logic of this is, of course, obvious. Until you break it down. Like much of the information (and people) orbiting around the filmmaking universe, the "star" thing is a superficiality embraced by the starstruck, naive, desperate and/or lazy filmmaker that doesn't hold up to substantive thinking.

Let me clarify that I am not saying there aren't benefits to having recognizable actors in your film. There are indeed. Many people in and out of the industry, including festival programmers, are "star"-obsessed. They put name actors on a pedestal and reward the film accordingly. But do you really want to pander to the "cult of celebrity" mentality? Especially when you do a cool-headed cost/benefit analysis (in terms of time, money AND energy) of doing the "star" trip.

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Fact #1: Very few stars can meaningfully affect a film's bottom line. Any distribution executive will tell you truthfully that there are very few actors that will significantly impact a film's potential revenue despite the widely held contrary notion. The film needs to be the star. The film needs to work.

Fact #2: Stars are hard to get. You can spend months, even years, trying to get stars interested in your project no matter how good your script is. Even if you figure out how to make contact, you are often sent from agent to manager to lawyer to publicist to dogwalker back to agent, and so on - with each one taking months to respond.

Fact #3: Stars can be expensive pains-in-the-ass. Even if you can get them to work for free (or practically free), they are still used to a certain level of treatment and perks that can wind up costing the production considerable amounts of money. Or they just can't/won't meet the demands of your production - costing you more time, which equals money. Also, stars can often wield their experience and status to run roughshod creatively over a fledgling director and, in fact, over a whole production. Of course, there are many exceptions to this fact - known actors who are respectful and generous with their time and creativity. But there are many more horror stories.

Fact #4: Stars can upset the tone of a film. I don't know how many times I've been thrown out of the authenticity of a film by the sudden appearance of a recognizable actor - bringing with them the baggage of what we know about them from other stuff. I don't want to be lost in a film just to be pulled out when Paris Hilton shows up for a mise-en-scene-chewing cameo.

And really, what is a "star"? Or a "name"? Does it really benefit your film to have a world famous socialite or minor regular from a popular t.v. show (which is what most emerging filmmakers are lucky to have access to) in your film unless their acting ability truly benefits the film creatively? Answer: No. Instead reframe the whole "star" thing in your head. First, make your film the "star". Think of the film as a whole as the marketing hook that will attract investors and audiences. Your distinctive ideas and creative energy will "sell" the film. If you look at the Sundance successes over the past several years, almost none had "name" actors. From "Chuck and Buck" to "Blair Witch Project" to "Napolean Dynamite". Think of some the great films in world cinema history - DiSica's "The Bicycle Thief", Resnais' "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" or Lynch's "Eraserhead". Now, name the "stars" in them. Good luck.

Second, think in terms of casting the actor that will bring the most CREATIVELY to your film. Yes, there are plenty of "name" actors whose work you love and would be great for your film. If you can get 'em (and they won't make you pull your hair out), go for it. But always make the film, and the process of making the film, your priority in terms of deciding what actor is appropriate to cast. There are plenty of brilliant/and or perfectly appropriate actors for your film who are not "stars" or "names". Have the courage to champion them. Take advantage of their accessibility and collaborative energy. Keep your film authentic. Use them to make your film great and you will then have your "star".

Old Stuff: Dream The BIG Filmmaking Dream

If you think I'm talking about the most common fantasy harbored secretly or bombastically by filmmakers - to one day direct studio films - you're dead wrong. In fact, quite the opposite. I'd like to snuff out that dream in all of you, if I could. The odds of directing a big studio or major cable film are slightly less ridiculous than winning the lottery. And even if you turn out to be the little filmmaking sperm that penetrates the big studio/corporate egg, you simply win, for the most part, the right to create big piles of slick, commercial poo. And you'll do it under the thumb of the studio brass who aren't going to hand over millions of dollars to some creative cowboy to run amok and make a dreaded "art" film? No, you're there to place your distinctive creative energies in service of freshening up stale ideas like "Saved By The Bell - The Movie". For every one "Crash" or "Brokeback Mountain" (yes, those are studio films despite all the b.s. about them being "independent"), the studio corporates pump out hundreds of "Kangaroo Jack"s.

No, the BIG dream I'm talking about is something else - something both more realistic and infinitely more satisfying. And that is to become your own studio. Meaning create, and guide the distribution of, your own films. Build an audience around your "brand" (what is uniquely you in your films). Make enough money from your films so you can live comfortably and make more films. How? Well, to get into detail would make this enote impossibly long. But in short, technology on both ends of the filmmaking process have made this dream a reality for many filmmakers. Digital production makes high-end creation unbelievably accessible. And new internet tools (including WAB's Audience tool and Distribution Lab) allow you to build and brand an on-line studio from which you can effectively manage the release of your films directly to your potential audiences.

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No doubt there have been (and are) great studio films and great studio filmmakers. But like lottery winners, they most often emerge by chance, not design. Statistically, your dream of studio filmmaking simply equates to a long-shot fantasy of being a well-healed corporate lackey controlled and directed at every turn so that you can churn out visually stunning commercial garbage. Allow yourself to dream something far beyond that. Something both bolder and more accessible that serves and respects the creative being that you are. It simply demands you respect your innate uniqueness, that you answer to your creative (rather than careerist) ambitions and that you take advantage of the rapidly developing tools that will support your creative and financial independence. This is the new paradigm for your life as a filmmaker. Dream it and then live it.

Old Stuff: Learning To Manage Feedback

As part of a formal filmmaking community (Filmmakers Alliance in Los Angeles), I cannot even conceive of making a film without the creative support I get from my family of fellow filmmakers. From script stage through editing, I use my community (many of which are talented filmmakers) to reflect back to me a perspective on the work I've created so that I may get a sense of how what I'm doing is being received by an audience. Granted, my filmmaking community probably views films with a slightly more specific and, perhaps, jaundiced eye than the general public, but the feedback is almost always littered with great ideas. And if I can get filmmakers lost in the film and not thinking about the filmmaking behind it, I know I've done what I want to do. Frankly, I find feedback the single most important creative tool in the development of my work.

But managing feedback is a skill, no, an art, that many filmmakers have difficulty mastering. Some get very defensive and protective about their work. A lot of filmmakers simply refuse to get feedback, preciously guarding their work from outside opinions and contributions. Yes, exposing your work to comment, especially at early stages, can create a sense of personal vulerability. But the benefits are worth it. Besides, the work will take much harder hits once it is realized and out in the world.

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Feedback can be both immensely valuable and incredibly destructive - all depending on how the filmmaker responds to and manages the feedback. Here's some tips/thoughts on how to handle feedback:

1. Prepare yourself for feedback. Make sure you are in the proper headspace to receive it. Sometimes that takes simple breathing, sometimes it means pre-visualizing worst-case scenarios. Whatever your technique, work to keep yourself open and non-defensive.

2. Know when the work is ready for feedback. First of all, you need to be ready. But the work should also be at a place where you can receive clear and meaningful feedback. That is, you've taken it as far down the road as you alone can. If you know there is more to do before showing it to others, then do it.

3. Resist immediately commenting on the feedback. Unless you need greater clarification, just take in the feedback. Sit with it and don't give in to knee-jerk reactions. Although feedback can feel personal, it is not. It is about the work. Do cut off or ignore any feedback that is indeed personal or abusive in any way, but otherwise flow with it and take the time to understand why your work is generating a particular reaction.

4. Don't be afraid to communicate and/or "guide" feedback. Often times it's best to just shut up and hear what others have to say, letting the work speak for itself. But if you have specific issues, concerns or questions don't be afraid to direct people to those points. When necessary, let them know specifically what you are trying to address and/or accomplish. This can sometimes really pinpoint the feedback.

5. Consider the source. Feedback is, of course, very subjective. Some people may not respond well to your work because they are simply coming from a very different aesthetic perspective. That doesn't mean they don't have valuable feedback to offer, and may indeed toss out some great ideas, but you will have to filter through the over-all feedback based on your understanding of their own aesthetic agenda.

6. Feedback is just that, and not necessarily the solution. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. People may be stopped or bothered by something so they give you "solutions". But often, they are just bad ideas. You have to interpret the feedback/solutions and think about why they are stopped beyond what they tell you. Film is a visceral medium and you are looking for the gut-level reactions to the film, then trust your own gut in working out how to respond to them.

7. No one knows better than you. At the end of the day, you need to feel right about responding to feedback and not just roll over for it because it is coming from someone you respect or because you feel some kind of pressure to respond to it. You must, must challenge yourself and look hard at any feedback that you feel needs to be taken seriously, but in the end, you are the filmmaker and must live with your decisions - and learn from them, if necessary.

Old Stuff: Permission To Fail

Well, in response to a previous blog, I got a rousing thumbs-up for my lengthy rants from the overwhelming majority of you, but I promise not to take advantage of the support. I'll try and make sure my blogs take as long as they need to take - not one bit more or less. This month is easy. My suggestion to you can be summed up in a word - FAIL!

More precisely, give yourself permission to fail. As I've said in previous articles, the best way to create awareness for yourself as a filmmaker is by doing brilliantly distinctive work. And the best way to evolve to and exist in that space is to give yourself permission to fail. Like many of my comments, this plea to you may seem insultingly obvious. But I go to a lot of festivals and see a lot of films. Many are very professional, very competent, but very safe - been-there/done-that kinda work. While I often admire the production value in such films, there is nothing about them that allows me to remember one second of them (or the filmmakers who made them).

Those filmmakers need to embrace risk, and therefore, failure. They should, in fact, try to fail. Then there's no going wrong because if you fail to fail, you've succeeded. Make sense? Probably not, but you get the idea. Failure is part of life and especially inescapable in terms of invention - creative or otherwise. If you aren't failing, you aren't taking risks, and therefore not growing creatively. Also, the sense of creative freedom that giving yourself permission to fail gives you is immensely satisfying in and of itself.

And how do we come to a consensus definition of failure? We don't. One person's failure is another's stroke of genius. Creative failure is simply whatever isn't working for YOU after you've tried it out. Which gives you the opportunity to learn from it, clean it up or try something new - perhaps something even more daring and exciting. There's so many of you filmmakers out there with jaw-dropping skill that once that skill is married to the original ideas that embracing failure will bring to you, your films will be, quite simply, AMAZING!

Old Stuff: Feed Your Crew

For me, this tip is a no-brainer. But I've recently run into so many second-time, third-time and even more-time filmmakers who still don't get it that I am compelled to make this my tip of the month. Feed your crew!! Of course I mean don't just feed them. Feed them well!! When making a low-budget film, there are a zillion budgetary concerns that necessitate the establishing of priorities to govern the way limited funds will be spent. Always put good, bountiful food at the top of those priorities. If you want a smooth, efficient shoot brimming with creative energy, you have to provide high-grade fuel for it. The way to the crew's collective heart is definitely through their collective stomachs.

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Often meals are the only "payment" filmmakers can provide for cast and crew. Show them you value their worth and time. No matter when you begin your shooting day (or night), always begin by offering a nice starter spread (if not a full meal) that respects common meal preferences/restrictions. Then leave the crew, throughout the day, a truly nutritious and delicious craft service table that is not just stocked with junk food and sugar rush garbage. Fruits and vegetables should always be available, of course, but also nuts and grains. Vitamins are not bad to have there, either. It's great to have "treats", but try to make sure they have some nutritional value. Get creative and/or ethnic with hummus, kim chee , or some other kind of interesting, but inexpensive, appetizer. Keep sugar to a minimum as it has short term benefits that turn into long term problems.

Highlight the day with a solid, even gourmet, if possible, central meal that also respects meal preferences/restrictions and always offers vegetables and/or salads. Then, if shooting a long day, be sure to include a second meal that doesn't always have to be pizza or Subway sandwiches. Yes, you will go there for convenience and cost, but not all the time. Mix it up, always making second meal nutritious and delicious.

Unless you are making a film with family/friends who are filled with endless forgiveness for your various inconsiderations, you MUST budget for food even if that is the only line item you can afford. Keep in mind that the food you provide is the message you are sending to your crew about what you feel about them, and consequently, what you feel about your own film. Send the right message. Trust me, you will see the benefit in your crew's energy, attitude and quality of work. It will be worth every penny.

Old Stuff: Brevity Is Not Always The Wit Of Soul

Some of the feedback I've been getting is that my writing is long and "weighty". Someone even posted a note on the message board reminding me that "brevity is the soul of wit". Well, If I was merely trying to be witty, I would indeed be brief.

But I feel many of the issues I'm discussing need to be explored on a deeper level and thoroughly worked out. The other important point, however, is that what I am offering may simply not be of value to you. If the thickness and number of paragraphs tires you out before you even read them, then much of what I say will not resonate with you, anyway.

I want to explore complexity and contradiction, which doesn't always happen with a nimble turn of phrase. However, I do confess to being "weighty". I do often lean on the side of "serious" filmmaking issues. But when confronted by filmmakers who want me to address films that "only" seek to "entertain", I tell them that much of what I am saying is relevant for them, too.

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Even if you are making the broadest of comedies, the humor in it needs to be fresh and distinctive, taking us someplace unexpected. Also, you are kidding yourself if you think you are ever "only making entertainment". Every creative choice you make, no matter how frivolous the film, conveys a set of ideas, beliefs, insights and points of view. You are always saying much more in each frame than you may ever have intended and much more than you might even know.

Why not take ownership and awareness of that fact and make a conscious decision about a film's subtext, no matter how outlandish it is superficially? Why not subtley layer in other points and issues that color the film with your distinctive worldview and imbue it with so much more than a cheap joke? I got a big kick out "Airplane", but I personally prefer to make "Annie Hall". Not the slightest bit interested in "Scary Movie 7" or "American Pie 8". But that's just me.

Old Stuff: Scaling Your Film

I don't know about you, but my imagination resists any and all attempts to be reigned in by the practical realities of getting a film made and out into the world. So it is difficult for me to consider "scaling" my film to the realities of my ability to make and market it. But scaling is a key idea in successfully realizing a film, especially if you are a first-time filmmaker. Scaling means taking your existing film project or creating a new one (if the existing one simply can't be modified without compromising it) and reworking it and the budget to fit the demands of an ACCESSIBLE budget and its REALISTIC ability to generate financial return. In other words, be encouraged to make an experimental documentary about the true length of time it takes paint to dry, but scale the project to your ability to raise funds and to the film's need and/or ability to generate meaningful - or at least realistic - financial return.

The fact is, most first films are financed by friends, family members and acquaintances. Hell, so are many second and third films. Budgets approaching a million dollars are pretty much prohibitive. Budgets approaching $25,000 are often prohibitive. But I see huge budgets all the time from first-time feature filmmakers. And they are usually budgets for films that don't have a snowball's chance in hell of making that money back, or even a fraction of it, for their investors. Investors are not stupid. At least, not about money. They can see the disparity even if they are neophytes to filmmaking. This is not important at the back end if its your own money to lose or you are funded by grants, public tv or some other funding entity that demands no financial return - or can afford to lose it. But it is always important at the front end - in relation to your ability to raise the funds necessary to get a film made.

The key to successful scaling is not to look at it as a business/practical decision, but rather, to approach it as a creative problem. Both Tarkovsky and Kieslowski worked under oppressive regimes that censored their work - creating many interesting creative challenges for them that they overcame brilliantly. Many Iranian filmmakers do the same thing today. We did it here in America during the imposition of the Hays Code. Don't think of your creativity and imagination as being reigned in - think of it as being sharply focused. What you can create within defined financial/practical parameters can often be infinitely more compelling than what you can create given unlimited budget and scope. Have confidence that you can do brilliant work at any level. True creativity can be found for a lot less than most filmmakers dare to imagine. As expensive as filmmaking can be, great films are about ideas and imagination - not money. So embrace scaling as a creative opportunity that can realistically bring you to your goal of making, finishing and successfully selling your film.