Thursday, November 20, 2008

Idea, Concept and Story Development - PART 2

Let's see now,...where did we leave things in Part 1? I believe we left them at....


Yes, that's the big question. How do we develop ideas, concepts and/or stories in a way that supports our goals for the finished film?

Well, there is an approach that was offered to me by my talented fellow filmmaker/writer and creative collaborator, Sean Hood. It is a similar, but more structured, approach to the one I've been using for many years. I'll call it the "Bucket System" (not to be confused with that dismal film "The Bucket List") - although he probably has much more appropriate name for it.

And it is simply this: Once you are confident your idea, concept or story is in-sync with your filmmaking goals, you immediately start aggregating assests (to steal from internet lingo). Meaning, instead of sitting in front of a blank page scratching your head trying to figure out how to begin writing and what specific things you need to do flesh out your goals for the film, you start accumulating bits and pieces obsessively and without judgement and you simply throw them into a "bucket". Sean's bucket is an old school writing tablet - y'know those ones from grade school with a hard cover that is black with white speckles and have lined paper inside. But that bucket can be anything - a notepad, your computer/laptop, a voice recorder, cell phone - anything. Sean handwrites ideas, thoughts, impressions, pieces of dialogue - practically ANYTHING that crosses his mind. You should do this without judgement and without hesitation. It may or may not be specifically relevant to your idea, concept or story. At this point, that's not important. What's important is that you allow yourself to freely generate smaller ideas that might possibly support the larger idea. Let it be stream of consciousness - dreams, images, conversations you've had with others (or yourself), memories, wild thoughts, etc., etc. Dump it ALL in your "bucket".

During this period, It's really important to open your mind. Meaning, be very aware of things around you and how they make you feel - visuals, conversations, arguments, smells, moods, whatever. Also, be aware of your thoughts, ideas and dreams. It's just really important to be very "awake" during this period so that you mind is fertile and creating lots of assets for your bucket(s).

Of course, this is a good time to find sources of inspiration, as well. Art galleries, concerts, plays, hikes, music, books - anything that gets your mind and creative energy working. And whatever emerges for you goes into the bucket(s).

Once a week - or as often as you feel inclined - go through your bucket and start picking out the things that are relevant to your idea, concept and/or story. If you are writing in a tablet, tear out those pieces and put them in a separate folder, then type them into a separate document. If you are talking into a voice recorder, transcribe those pieces into a written document. If you have ideas on a computer, create a new document and re-type them in. Don't just cut and paste. The re-creating of the bucket things into a new document process always breeds another level of fresh ideas.

And do not trash the bucket items you do not use. They may be meaningful to you down the line in some way....or on another project. Keep them so you can return to them at some point in the future.

After you've done this for awhile, your idea, concept and/or story will begin to take shape. How? It just does, trust me. If not, just keep adding to your bucket. But at some point, those bucket items will start to form the structural pillars of your project.

From here, there are many things you can do to start organizing your "assets" into a script (or conceptual plan if you are just working off of a concept). Sean has his specific method that he will share with you in this blog at some point. For me, it is important to then write a treatment. Not one of those long, drawn out 40 page treatments. Just something that clarifies for me the visceral trajectory of the project. I usually sketch out a 5 to 10 page treatment. For me the treatment is the most important single document. Even more so than the script. The script will have a lot of specifics around which we plan the shooting, but those are all subject to change or deletion at any point. The treatment embodies the core elements of the project and helps to keep my goals for he project clear.

Finally, I start writing the script. Although Sean has introduced me to yet another step that I have yet to try, but about which I am very excited. Rather than jump right to the script, he suggests writing down scene headings. Such as:


Nothing more than this. You are simply starting to chart out what happens and when. You may not use many of the scene headings you create (because you may find you don't need the scene). Or they may change order in all kinds of way. But like a rough draft, it is a beginning blueprint for the script (which, in turn, is a blueprint for the film). After this, you finally write the script (if it is indeed a script you are writing).

I promise you, if you take all of these steps, you will be far more productive and create a project that is far more satisfying to you than if you simply cough up an idea and then jump straight into trying to write or make a film. But here I must remind you of something by harkening back to my previous blog. Creating the Goal List is an essential part of the process. I cannot begin to express to you how well it pays off to do that work - until you yourself have done it and completed a film.

So, in summary, here's the steps I've outlined in Parts 1 and 2:
1. Start with you idea, concept and/or story. Even a germ of the idea.
2. Create your list of goals for the eventual film. Don't forget practical goals - like a goal of making the film with money you can realistically raise.
3. Compare/contrast your goals to your idea, concept or story and put them in sync with each other.
4. Start filling your "bucket" or buckets.
5. Select the things out of your bucket(s) that are relevant to your project and put them into a separate written document.
6. Write a Treatment.
7. Create Scene Headings.
8. Write that script (if you are writing a script).

Lastly, ignore all of this if you are a cinematic genius or if you have your own successful system that allows you to churn out amazing projects.

In any case, get busy developing that idea, concept and/or story. Feature or short. Fiction or Documentary. Live action or animation. Doesn't matter. The process is the same and it pays off just as well with any type of film you choose to do.

Just go do it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Idea, Concept and Story Development - PART 1

Making a great film starts at the beginning. The original idea, concept or story (for more traditional filmmakers) is the skeletal system of your film. It has to be able to hold the muscle, tissue, heart and brain of your finished film. If it is weak, it can't stand up under the weight of your creative ambitions. Usually, when a film under-achieves or has unfixable problems (once it is shot), they can be traced directly back to the concept and story (or lack thereof).

How do we make sure we are working with an idea, concept or story that truly serves our talent and ambitions? Well, there's no simple answer to that question, unfortunately. Why? Because there are a few variables involved related to what you are trying to achieve with your film.

Therefore, I won't even pretend to present any definitive answers, but I do have some thoughts and approaches we should consider about our ideas and how we might realize them before investing a ton of blood, sweat and tears on a project.

First, I believe you must address the variables and answer the main question - What are you trying to achieve with your film? Meaning, what are you trying to express/explore energetically, thematically and/or aesthetically? There is rarely one answer to this question. In fact, one answer could potentially limit the creative breadth of your film. Think about your film on a lot of levels - energetically, structurally, thematically, aesthetically - and then list all your goals for each level. If the list is sparse, you may be underachieving. If the list is gargantuan, you may be over-reaching. But you'll never know as clearly as you will if you just list them all then sit back and look at that list. If you are doing a comedy your list may look like this (Example A):

1. To make people laugh.

Or like this (Example B):

1. To make people laugh.
2. To create dynamic visual puns.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.

or like this (Example C):

1. To make people laugh.
2. To make people cry.
3. To push the audience to the edge of a mental breakdown.
4. To create dynamic visual puns.
5. To create visuals such as the world has never seen.
6. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
7. To mimic the hypnotic energy of a Tarkovsky film.
8. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
9. To show humans as the compassionate masters of the universe.
10. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.
11. To create a completely new myth of God.
12. To end wars forever.
13. To reduce global warming.
14. To bring prosperity to the planet.
15. To discover life on other planets.
16. To expose all of my personal issues and get revenge on every single asshole who's ever f^%$#ed me over!

Obviously, Example A may be a bit too sparse to do a truly great film (or it may not, if you have a great minimalist approach). It could still be very funny, but it might soon be forgotten. Think "Dumb and Dumber" versus, say, "Annie Hall". And Example C is, of course, ridiculously over-reaching. But even as I say that, I laugh at how many filmmakers actually believe they can create something almost as ambitious as Example C and usually wind up creating nothing more than an incomprehensible mess. Now, I'm not saying Example B is perfect, because there is no perfect example. Simply that which works for you, the filmmaker, and is realistically achievable.

The next step, then, after you've created your list, is to examine it in relation to your idea, concept or story. How well can your idea, concept or story serve your list of goals for the film? Of course, if your list is short, it demands less from your central idea, concept or story. But, again, keep in mind that great films usually work on multiple levels.

If you are a genius, you don't have to make a list like this. Your ability to conceive things cinematically that work on many levels will probably be intuitive and not demand conscious thought about any of this. But I'm certainly no cinematic genius and I really don't know of any personally. What I know are filmmakers who have genius inside of them that is buried under a bunch of ego, mental static, inexperience and misinformation. This kind of work is simply a tool for digging into that latent genius.

Some of this comparison work is a no-brainer. If one of your goals is to create stunning visuals but your concept is to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting, then you either have to re-conceive your film to match that goal or eliminate the goal. OR, stretch your creative muscles and try to discover a way to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting that is indeed stunning visually. I wouldn't try it, but it might be possible. You should figure that out, however, before you commit any more energy to the project.

Some of the comparison work is a bit more challenging. But it may force you to start filling out your idea, concept or story in a way that will support your goal or goals. Let's say you create a list similar to Example B above. Your central idea is a relationship story told as a detective/mystery story. Meaning, the relationship is like a living being and it's demise is like the death of that living being. So, you want to use a detective/mystery paradigm to uncover the "truth" of that death and unmask the culprit or culprits. Given that, here are your goals, again:
1. To make people laugh - can still definitely do this if you have a penchant for humor. A tongue-in-cheek approach to the detective paradigm could work. Lots of funny relationship vignettes and contemporary life absurdities to explore.
2. To create dynamic visual puns - I don't even know what this means, but I put it on the list anyway. Let's just say we want to use the visuals to generate a lot of humor. Totally doable.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film - this one may be doable with some inventiveness, but will it really serve the tone of the film? My gut tells me no. I'll let this one go and try to come up with some other form of comedic energy - although I may explore it for a vignette, if appropriate.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues - easily done, of course.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand - more challenging, but totally supportable with this concept.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God - also doable, but challenging. The key would be to integrate this thematic idea into the story/humor rather than club people over the head with this as a "message".

So, once you are confident your idea, concept or story is in-sync with your goals for the film, you need to start asking the more difficult question: How? It's fine to believe that you can expose the narcissism of the concept of a Judeo-Christian God in a relationship comedy told as a detective story if that thematic premise is properly integrated. But you won't really know if that's possible until you start thinking specifically about how you are going to achieve it.

I won't give an example because I have no f%$#@ing idea how one might achieve that given my relationship/detective story example. Suffice it to say that I believe God as an extreme narcissist is a funny concept to me. Naturally, I would then need to figure out what circumstances in the story will allow me to explore that theme inobtrusively (or conversely, so obtrusively it's hilarious).

Like all creative work, there is often a trial-and-error process in developing ideas, so don't censor yourself too much. And don't put too much pressure on yourself to detail the "how" part of achieving your creative goals. Just make sure you are confident they can be done with your chosen idea, concept or story. If it doesn't work, then you always change things, of course. You either change the concept or the goal (maybe a little of both) - depending on what the priority is for you.

Alright. This is a good place to stop. Look out for Part 2 - A detailed process for how to take the next steps in developing your idea/concept/story.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Things happening in my filmmaker's world....

So, I'm sitting here at the second and last day of HD Expo, where Filmmakers Alliance has a booth and where things have slowed down dramatically. So, I have a little time on my hands to catch up on my stuff. But why do that when I can write a blog and catch YOU GUYS up on my stuff?

Surrounded by so much amazing technology, I can never help but think about how little all of it means if it isn't servicing amazing creativity. I went to the first HD Expo many years ago and it really has evolved nicely....and professionally. It's a really nice trade show, especially for tech heads. But I'm not a tech head. Although I'm deeply impressed by all of this cool stuff, I'm not at all interested in the details of how they work. Can this stuff dependably create the images I'd like to create without causing a post-production nightmare? If yes, great. I'm satisfied. Don't need to know anymore than that. If I didn't have sponsors to chat up, I'd be long gone. But it is indeed a nice show for tech heads.


However, it is a welcome break from the mental intensity I created for myself over the last several weeks. I had to give a HUGE presentation to a HUGE foundation as the last step in receiving support from them for the global launch of Filmmakers Alliance. In relation to what was at stake, it was by far the hugest presentation of my (or FA's) life. And, unfortunately, I held that awareness in my head for a month straight. Luckily, it motivated me to prepare obsessively. I created the presentation, revised it, combed through details, revised some more, researched ideas, revised it more, showed it to people, revised more, wrote a script for it, rehearsed it 5,193 times (generating just as many versions of the script) and fretted that I should have done it 6,000 times. With a lot of great feedback from people, I arrived in front of the Board of Trustees YESTERDAY with all of it locked inside of me....and, finally, it had to come out.

Did I choke? No. Actually, I think I kinda nailed it. Doesn't mean the money is in our hands, but I did my part, I believe. Of course it is only their opinion that matters in terms of receiving the grant, but my opinion matters in terms of me not feeling like an abject failure. And today, I feel quite the opposite. I wasn't aware how much I'd twisted up my insides about this thing until it was over. And now that they are untwisting, I feel like I'm taking my first breaths in almost a month. And everything smells and tastes good.

And what if I sucked? I have before. I've met with sponsors and investors and other people who could significantly impact my life and/or our organization. And, at times, I sucked badly. I was emotionally distracted or unprepared or ate something that didn't agree with me....or all of the above. Did it make me less of a person? Did it destroy my confidence? No. Actually, those moments always tend to make me more determined.

So why did I have such a reaction to this presentation? Well, partially, it was indeed the size of what's at stake. Also, the reputation/prestige of the foundation. Also, the person who set up the presentation was counting on me to prove I belonged in the room. Well, she never actually conveyed that energy to me - she is very sweet, smart and considerate. I created that thought myself - but it kinda makes sense, doesn't it? This was a big opportunity that the foundation simply doesn't have the time to just hand out like candy. But we were given the opportunity and we were given it mostly on a her faith in me and what we're doing. Well, true or not, I used that thought to put a lot of pressure on myself to be equal to her faith. I'm certain there are probably deeper psychological issues at play that allowed me to torture myself about it for month, but I'm not inclined to investigate that in this particular forum. It is important, however, for us filmmakers to privately check in with ourselves in regard to how we behave when key connections and/or opportunities are presented to us.

Finally, the timing of the presentation added to the intensity of things. There's been lots of change, both for FA and for me personally, over the last couple of years and this support would provide a dynamic sense of focus...and purpose. It really is time for both me and FA to move to the next level in the work we do together and I'm eager to make that happen.

But it's out of my hands, now. And I'm fine with that. In the meantime, I will busy myself with other projects, such as writing my new feature "Hurricane Jane", helping finish up Kerry Prior's "The Revenant", continuing to self-distribute "The Dogwalker" and support the myriad of other projects with which I'm involved to one degree or another.

But one really cool project I'm excited about is Lauren Bon's "Silver and Water" - which enters its second phase of shooting in a little over a week. I'm the producer, of this unique, amazing and ambitious project...well, sort of. The project doesn't follow traditional filmmaking paradigms. It is very fluid and organic and I'm enjoying that. Lauren is an extremely intelligent, talented and accomplished artist who works in many different mediums and has now turned her attention to an art form, or course. Her work tends to be related to cultural, environmental or social impact issues. Naturally, this pleases me immensely. Through her, the project is a marriage of aesthetic ambition and social impact. I've committed myself recently to only being involved with films that aspire to at least one or the other. A project that aspires to both in one film couldn't make me happier.

Anyway, I'm on a post-presentation high, so I can't write anymore. I'm going to go work out....or work on my other stuff...or fix my roof....or wash my car....or re-landscape my backyard.....or just lay in it and smell the flowers.....