It’s a fairly common occurrence for me that a young talent will come to me and ask me how to break into the biz. Since I’ve made several movies, make my living as a full-time writer and still don’t know “how to break into the biz,” I’m never sure what to say.
I do know this: it’s hard to get a movie made. The maze an idea has to go through from idea to multiplex is so long, so convoluted and so fraught with peril, that almost no ideas whatsoever make it all the way. The multiplex hit is a property designed from the top down, the corporation that owns the studio says “We need to see X amount of profit, or you’re out of business.” The studio then says “We need to take zero risks in our release schedule, we can only make huge movies that will play well internationally and will bring in lots of money through ancillaries for a long long time.”
So, if you’re a young talent and you’re expecting to “break into the biz,” the odds are stacked hugely against you. The studio is giving the jobs that matter to people who have already proven themselves to be talented filmmakers.
And so, the thing I say to the young talent who wants to break into the biz is: “Make your own work.” No one is going to give you a job writing or directing a movie; write and direct the movie yourself.
It’s never been easier. Cameras are dirt cheap, computer memory even cheaper, and your phone probably has an editing program more sophisticated than AVID. And the internet is right there, demanding to be fed content every day, 24 hours a day.
If you’d like an example of the perfect movie to make, go see The One I Love. It has one location, two actors, and a lovely corkscrew of an idea that means that the one-location, two-actor movie doesn’t feel like a play. It’s a movie, and it could only be a movie.
I’m glad that The One I Love has the production values it does, but whatever its budget was, it could have been lower. It could have been nothing. The script could have been shot with a consumer-level camera in a single apartment. The movie is in the idea. Because the idea is so strong, the script could have withstood almost any production values at all and would still have worked narratively and dramatically.
Point is, production values are nice and all, but the first thing you need is a great idea that gives rise to a great script. Stick to those things and you don’t need car chases, alien invasions, “great cinematography” or anything else, you’ll be on your way. And you don’t have to shoot it in a house, just about everyone has a unique location available to them. If you have a boat, write a movie that takes place on a boat. If you have an RV, make a movie that takes place in an RV. If you have an abandoned castle nearby, use that. The movie Killing Zoe got made because the producer had access to an abandoned bank that was about to be demolished, so he asked Roger Avery to write a movie that takes place in a bank.
Use what ever is around you, and use your lack of funds to your advantage. Start with an idea, write a movie that’s simple to shoot, and shoot it. Then you’ll have a movie people can see, and if you’ve done your job you won’t need to break into the biz, the biz will come looking for you.
It was a great weekend for American filmmaking. Gravity is a solid thriller, made by a great director, Alfonzo Cuaron, a man with a bold cinematic vision, backed by a fearless producer, David Heyman, who ushered Cuaron’s vision to the big screen, produced in collaboration with a huge studio, Warner Bros, who supported Gravity‘s vision and ushered it into theaters with a hugely effective marketing push. Miracle of miracles, the movie made a ton of money and will continue to do so. Because Gravity fulfills one of the essential qualities of commercial filmmaking in 2013: you gotta see it in a movie theater. This is a movie that will not be the same experience when you’re watching it on your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store.
Here’s the thing: in an ideal world, Gravity would be an average American movie. Why isn’t it?
"Do [romantic comedies] usually have a protagonist? what does s/he usually want? "Get back into a family"? "Find happiness"? "Get over my ex"? "Become a better person so i can be a better father/mother"? Then i thought about the best romantic comedy, Annie Hall. i thiiiink you once wrote here that it has brilliant script, but i don’t believe you’ve ever posted an in-depth analysis of it. Does it have a protagonist? Is it Alvy? What does he want? "To get the eggs"? Is he just living out some sort of narcissistic pathology? Are there rules that Annie Hall follows that other successful romantic comedies also follow? If so, do they do away with the idea of a protagonist altogether?
What would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do? —pirateman
So in that situation [where some stranger walks in and ruins your pitch] do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point? —johnnycrulez
If you’ve been reading this journal for very long, you know that I’m the last guy you should ask for advice about pitching.
I hate pitching with a passionate, burning intensity. Partly because it’s a degrading, humiliating experience antithetical to good writing, and partly because I suck at it.
Can we see a break-down of the concepts behind the Multiple Acts school of writing? I’ve had the idea of three acts only shoved down my throat for years and it feels wrong to try to shoehorn a story into this particular artificial construct. Is there some magic number of acts, or do you just need to make sure your story has a beginning and an ending of some sort and build from there or something else entirely? — quitwriting
Completely agreed. I don’t fully understand what makes one act disparate from the next. — erranthope
I’d be interested to see this as well. — stormwyvern
I currently define an act as when the status quo changes into something else, and those changes are irreversible...How many acts, though? My answer right now is "however many you need to tell the story". — Kent M. Beeson
Let me answer this the best way I know, by telling a story:
I’m hoping you can help me with some basic movie industry knowledge. In discussions of movies, how they’re made, individual roles, etc., I’m constantly asked who really does what. For example, does it really matter that the executive producer of “Big Success” also produced “New Film?” Is it really a stamp of quality? I’ve tried to figure it out, but not being part of the business it’s still a little murky. So here’s my basic understanding:
Executive Producer – Provides the money, has final say on several matters.
Producer – Deals with day to day operational matters.
Screenwriter(s) – Provides the foundational material.
Director of Photography/Cinematographer – Creates the look of the film, including angles of shots, lighting, coloring
Director – Oversees individual takes, tries to get actors to deliver a performance that meets his ‘vision,’ decides when to move on to next scene.
Key Grip – Makes sure nothing moves that isn’t supposed to.
Best Boy Grip – No friggin’ clue.
So, assuming that I’m (mostly) right about the above job roles, what happens when someone like Spielberg or Cameron steps up to the helm? Do they just get more of the credit? Do they take on multiple roles? How accurate is it to say that Spielberg’s success is due in large part to good script selection, like Tom Hanks?
55seddel writes: "Will you speak to why [The Dark Knight] is a melodrama and not a tragedy?"
A melodrama is a drama where "good" and "bad" are easily distinguished (the name comes from how, when the original melodramas were staged, the band played a cue so that the audience would know who was good and who was bad), events are fantastical and emotions are heightened well beyond real life. The Dark Knight fits all those descriptions quite well — the good are good, the bad literally walk around with big distinguishing marks on them, the action is unrealistic (although grounded in a well-realized "reality") and the emotions — both on screen and in the audience — are greatly heightened. One of the acts even climaxes with a damsel tied to a big friggin’ bomb as the hero races to her rescue. In a traditional Victorian melodrama, the damsel is tied to the railroad tracks and the hero is the Mountie who always gets there in time. The Dark Knight plays this scenario out almost to a T — except that its hero races to the wrong address and the damsel gets vaporized.
A tragedy is, simply put, a story where the protagonist, trying to do good, causes his own downfall. Hamlet thinks identifying and killing his father’s murderer will set everything straight in Denmark, and instead he winds up getting everyone killed and losing the kingdom to an invading horde. And The Dark Knight certainly contains elements of tragedy, no doubt about it. One could find parallels to Bruce Wayne in Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus, great leaders who boldly step forward to improve the life of their city, only to find in the end they’ve made everything much, much worse. And, like Oedipus, Bruce Wayne seeks to discover the source of the plague on his city, only to find that it is himself.
But to call The Dark Knight a tragedy is to overlook all the other things it does so well — it’s a great superhero movie (a genre melodramatic by nature), a great thriller, a great crime drama, and a not-bad detective movie. It is all those things on a very sophisticated level, so much so that it doesn’t quite have the time to develop a true air of tragedy. Better to appreciate it for what it is — an exceptionally intelligent, incredibly dense, impeccably crafted action thriller that smartly addresses its audience in a way its genre never has before, and raises the "comic book movie" to an entirely new level of excellence.
(Many thanks to faithful reader The Editor.)
all stills swiped from film_stills .
"I wonder if you’re more interested in the structure than the actual content of the script?"
In a screenplay, there is no difference between structure and content, "actual" or otherwise. A screenplay is a collection of scenes devised in a certain way placed in a certain order to achieve a desired dramatic effect. In the same way that "character" is nothing but habitual action, the "actual content" of a screenplay is nothing but the scenes that fill its pages and the order in which they’re placed. To say "I like the screenplay’s structure but I don’t like its content" is to say "I like that guy but I don’t like the things he does."
David Mamet once said that the only question in an audience’s head during a movie should be "What happens next?" The screenwriter’s job is to keep the audience interested in the story. When the screenwriter does his job well, the audience gets sucked into the story and experiences the thrill of drama. When he does his job very well, the thrill of the experience is so powerful that the audience comes back again and again, even though they know how the story turns out. Spectacle may amaze and movie stars may charm, but if the screenwriter has not done his job well, the movie will still turn out bad and the audience will stay home. The Dark Knight engages the audience on a level unseen in movies lately, and does so while employing a number of bold innovations, which I will discuss as we move forward.
"Do you think the rapid turnaround from theater to dvd is a problem? One of my friends refers to theatrical releases as "trailers for the dvd" and I usually don’t worry about catching a film at the theater unless it’s the sort of thing likely to benefit from a gigantic screen and sound system."
Funny you should ask; I’ve recently reversed myself somewhat on the subject of adaptations. I used to feel that producers were willfully obtuse, that they labor diligently to purchase the rights to popular works and then, for no good reason, fundamentally change the nature of the piece out of sheer ego or sheer perversity. I felt that, if you’re going to go to the trouble of purchasing the rights to a book or play or comic or video game or bumper sticker or whatever you’ve spent your hard-earned money on, you might as well stay as true as possible to the source material — I felt that there had to be a reason why the original is popular, and the movie had to address that or else it would fail.