Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ranting from the Creative Mind (part three)

Oh, just one more thing about collaboration… 

It's important not to think that a good collaboration means you always agree on everything. In fact, many times it's the opposite. Arguments are to be expected, but it's nothing personal… 

It's all in the search for truth and logic. I don't care if you're talking about a romantic comedy, an intimate drama, a slasher film or a sci-fi fantasy… As imaginative as the situation might be, you still have to have a basis of truth in your characters and how they behave and relate to each other. You don't have that, you don't have squat… Pure and simple. We all know what bullshit smells like and we've all had a whiff of it in way too many movies to be satisfied with it. 

Now comes the rant

But I am sometimes frustrated with the indifferences of audiences today. We've become satisfied with "good enough." We've become so numbed by ugly, homemade, two-minute videos on YouTube that no one takes the time to appreciate the art of the image or the subtle impact of a good performance or an in-depth story anymore. 

Quick is better! We live in a world of highlight reels… give me the spoiler so I can move on… without any build up or suspense… We all want to get to the destination without the journey and we really cheat ourselves out of so much when we do that. It's well known that the journey is the best part. 

But it's like we're okay with the bullshit so long as we get the spectacle. It's like eating cotton candy. It doesn't fill you up or have any nutritional value, but it's sweet and colorful and it gives your jaws something to do. 

And not that the audiences don't realize this. They do. People constantly complain to me about why movies are so bad, but what they don't realize is that they are just as responsible as the filmmakers. They pay to see these movies and the bean counters surmise that this is what they want. I don't think I ever met a single person who liked a "Transformers" sequel, yet they all go see them. And I'm guilty of it, too. It's like we keep getting suckered into the same ponzi scheme hoping that this one will make us rich but it never does… And the corporate suits laugh it up all the way to the bank. 

The term used to be "Show Business" but now it's strictly business. Creativity is relegated to the marketing campaigns, not the storytelling. 

And the disdain that producers and execs have against the artist - especially writers - is extremely palpable. I recently had a meeting with a finance person and a producer about a story that I had created and neither one of them spoke to me once the whole time I was there. It was like I was at a tennis match. I sat between them, looking back and forth while they dictated the future of my project. And whenever I tried to interject, I would receive this annoyed glance as if I was a child who had spoken out of turn.

And what I find most interesting in these meetings is that the producers never talk about the quality of the story or the characters or how to please the audience with a great movie, it's more about the numbers and acquiring the pieces they see as more valuable. What's trending today? "We should put some superheroes in the story. Who cares if it's based on a true story, superheroes are big now." How much in tax breaks can we get? What star will get the most in foreign pre-sales? 

Say what you will about the studio moguls of Hollywood's Golden Age… Sure they treated the writers like second-class citizens back then, too… but at least they understood the importance of a good story and they were willing to take risks with talented people who had vision. 

Today, Studio execs read financial charts, not scripts. And the ones who do, watch a two hour seminar on the fundamentals of screenwriting and think they know all there is to know. All you have to do is follow this simple formula and that's it… "Save the Cat" and Presto! Instant success! And that's why every damn movie you see nowadays is the same damn movie. And then they stand there and scratch their heads and wonder why no one's going to the movies anymore. 

And what's worse is they don't even follow the fundamental rules of good storytelling.

Seriously, if you've ever taken a Screenwriting 101 Course, one of the first things they beat into your brain is to never and I mean never… rely on exposition to tell your story. 

Yet, you go see any $200 million tentpole extravaganza and I guarantee you within the first ten to fifteen minutes, you're going to get that scene where somebody pulls out a folder and goes down a grocery list of attributes that will explain everything you need to know about your main characters.

Which brings me to another pet peeve I have… 

When someone tells me that a movie wasn't very good but it was… "entertaining." "All you have to do is turn off your brain and you'll enjoy it."

"What the f**k is that?" 

It's such a cop out and it's just plain lazy!… Lazy writing, lazy filmmaking and lazy viewing. Life is too short. Why waste your time? 

But that just goes to show how much we've allowed the bar to be lowered. We're not demanding enough. We are a generation lost in creative ignorance. We're now perfectly happy with looking at a stick drawing instead of the "Mona Lisa." 

With that kind of logic, I should be satisfied staring at a brick wall. I don't have to think about that either. Our passivity and lack of interest has made us boring!

But what really pisses me off is when some producers come at you with this condescending attitude like… "Oh, you artist! You're so precious about your art… I live in the real world. I'm a business person. I care about making money." 

And I'm like… "F**k you! I like making money as much as the next guy. I love money! I've lived with it and I've lived without it and I will tell you right now, it's much better with it. But I also believe that the best way to make money is by creating a quality product. I guess, you could say I have that APPLE mentality… Yeah, it might be harder to create something good, but the rewards could be so much more than just trying to cheap it out and make a fast buck ."

You see, I still have faith in the audience, because I am the audience, too. Just like me, they want quality. They've shown it time and time again when they support those little gems that come out every once in a while that redefines everything. 

And the one thing you can never lose sight of is that the audience is your boss! Even more so than the producer, studio exec or distributor… it really comes down to your audience, whether or not they are pleased. And if you underestimate them, dismiss them or take them for granted, they will slaughter you, cook you and eat you!

And as filmmakers who take this job seriously, we constantly have to ask these two simple questions… "Do we buy it?" "Is this something I want to see?" 

Once we can answer "yes" to those, you can be pretty safe to say at least two or three other people will, too.

(Next, preproduction and casting begins…)

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Ranting from the Creative Mind (part two)

As a writer or any kind of creative person for that matter, you're constantly searching around in the dark for that next idea. By the dark I mean that void of imagination that you teleport your mind into… Whether it's a daydream, a nightmare, or a form of meditation… 

I literally play out countless imaginary scenes in my head… Some takes are better than others… You keep the ones you like, ignore the ones you don't. I say ignore instead of forget because you never really forget even the bad ideas… but even a bad idea can be useful from time to time. It's all about context. And what a lot of people don't understand is this is the job... not the sitting down at the keyboard and typing out page after page. That's just the end result. 

People would always ask me why aren't you writing, but what they didn't realize was… I was writing all along… in my head!

At least that's my process. I'm not one of these writers that can sit down and just start writing ten pages a day from scratch. If I did that, I would just be writing ten pages of shit. For me, it would be a total waste of time. 

Instead, I'll sometimes spend hours of laying around with my eyes closed imagining every possible scenario before committing it to words. Sometimes I admit, i even feel a little guilty for it, because I feel like I should be doing more, but what no one sees is that the mind is constantly working… and it can be draining. I mean, it's constantly working… Whether you're driving down the road, talking to a neighbor or picking up groceries, a part of your brain is still trying to solve that puzzle called a story.

And even when I think I finally figured it out, those ideas get tested before I ever hit a single keystroke. To my advantage, I have a writing/directing partner that I've been working with for years now. Gregory J. Bradley and I have what I believe is a rare collaboration. 

Both of us have a lot in common. Both of us loved comic books and drew our own stories growing up. Both of us were actors. Both of us made short films. Both of us were DJs who loved music. Both of us were into Martial Arts and Hong Kong Cinema… You get the picture… We both have very similar likes and dislikes, but we also have different strengths that play well off each other. 

People are always curious about how a writing/filmmaking team works without the ego getting in the way. Evidently, this is a big issue with a lot of creative types and I have to admit I've had my fair share as well, especially when I was younger, but I believe the trick is you have to check your ego at the door… 

But not your talent. 

Even though I've never been married, I would hazard to guess that a creative partnership is very similar.

The common denominator is trust. You have to respect each others ideas even if you don't always agree with the execution. And that's where the real collaboration comes in. If the both of you consider an idea to be valid, you have to make sure you develop it in such a way that every beat works for the both of you. 

That's the challenge, because it's a process of checks and balances. You have to be honest with yourself. You have to recognize the good and you have to weed out the bad. And you can't worry about who came up with what. That's where the ego can get in the way. 

A great idea is a great idea. What the hell do you care who came up with it? Both of your names are going on it anyway. And I guarantee you that if you embrace that attitude, it will open up all kinds of opportunities for you to add your own spin to it as well. I compare it to a great session of Jazz. You riff off the other guy's notes and you build on it. 

You see, execution is everything. You can have a terrific idea, but if you fail to execute it in a provocative way, you just pissed it away. And God knows we've all seen a lot of great ideas go down the shitter in a lot of movies… 

Like anything, we've had our good and bad experiences during the development process and unfortunately, I've seen many of our ideas go horribly wrong. The worst thing that can happen is you get a producer or director on board that doesn't understand story structure or subtext or even the basic point of your script. And you might be surprised, but it's more common than you think. 

Back in the day, I used to put a lot of the blame on the screenwriter for a bad movie. I used to say, "Who the hell wrote this shit?" But I'm telling you right now… a high percentage of the time… "IT'S NOT THE WRITER'S FAULT!" 

I bet you, he or she was more than likely forced to change what was really a cool idea at first.

I can't tell you how many times we've had to change things that we just didn't believe in because the director or producer demanded it. Not that they don't come up with good ideas, many of them do. It's just that a lot of times they want to throw out the baby with the bath water… Sorry, I'm from the south… I just love using those old colloquialisms sometimes. But think about it. What if you had a baby? You carried it for nine months, gave birth and raised it for a couple years, then somebody comes along and says, "Hey, Beautiful Baby! Love to help you send it to college, but we need to chop off its arms and legs and replace them with these really cool wooden limbs instead. It's the latest thing!"

Okay, I know, sometimes I get a little morose and over dramatic, but if you're a good writer who knows your craft and not some hack, this is something that you've probably spent months or even years nurturing and developing.

You've already gone down every road and you've already seen every dead end and you know - at least from a story perspective - what works and what doesn't. So it's a little disconcerting when someone glances over your script once and thinks they know how to fix everything - and many times without even taking the time to consult with you as to why you chose to do the things you did. Because sometimes you may have a great idea that's just not coming across - perhaps it just needs to be clarified, not dismissed.

Now, don't think that we're so precious with every little syllable that we can't change anything. Like I said before, a good idea is a good idea. You give us something better, we'll run with it. In fact, we get excited when someone gives us a new way of looking at a scene or a character that adds more depth to the story we're telling. That's what you pray for!

But a lot of times, it has nothing to do with the story you wrote, it's more about the story the producer or director wants to tell. And it may have nothing to do what you created. They just happened to get attached to your project, so now they need to change everything in order to fit their agenda. And when that happens, they will be blind to anything you show them that's outside of that box, no matter how good it is.

The true art in the development process is to be able to take other people's ideas and make what you have even stronger, which can be overwhelming sometimes. Especially when you have seven development execs in the room and they're all giving you notes, and a lot of them are conflicting with each other. And you're trying to figure out a way to explain as nicely as possible that those ideas are going to totally f**k everything up!

It's one of the few jobs where you're hired because of your skills, but then everybody ignores you when you try to do your job. It's like hiring an experienced surgeon, but then telling them how to operate.

Perfect example…

We sold a script a few years back and we did our obligatory rewrites with a couple directors they brought on during the development process. After we did our rewrites, we left and went our own way. Time marched on and while we worked on other material, we would sometimes hear that other directors had come on board, but to no avail. 

Then after a few years and the script was about to go into turnaround, we got a call from the production company. They explained that they really wanted to do the project, but they felt that maybe too much time had passed and that the script didn't feel as fresh anymore - that it had become a little stale and dated. And they explained that they had other writers and directors come in but that no one had been able to crack it yet. So they were wondering, since we created the material, if we wanted a shot at it? Of course we said, "Sure! You bet your sweet patootie we would!" 

Well, we get the latest draft the next day. I'm reading this thing and… From page one nothing looked familiar. Even the character's names were changed - which confused the hell out of me because these new names were really lame. Then I found out that it was an old trick some screenwriters and directors will use to make it look like they did more work than they did on a script so that they can get more credit… "Oh, you motherf**kers!"

Anyhow, I'm about twenty pages in this thing… this bastardization that used to be our story! I call up Greg and said, "Are you reading this?" 

He comes back after taking a beat to catch his breath… "Yeah! What the f**k?!! 

I come back, "I know! What the f**k?" 

This thing was unrecognizable. Forget the cool characters we created. They were dead! Or even the coherent story structure, that was now a maze lost inside a dark forest surrounded by the Himalayan Mountains. But even the coolest set pieces - those great moments that you just know is going to wind up in the trailer - those gems we figured no one would ever be stupid enough to get rid of… were gone! 

So we finish it. And we're sitting' there thinking…"Wow, no wonder why this movie isn't getting made…"So after a long discussion, we came to the conclusion that there wasn't anything worth salvaging in this latest draft, so now what do we do?… This project was way too important to just let die this way… So what do we do?… What do we do?… Finally… 

"Screw it! Let's hand them back our original draft." -- 

"I know!... Bold move, right?!" 

But we figured if we got busted, we would just explain ourselves later. So, Bam! We roll the dice! We give them back the original draft without saying a damn thing.

A few days go by and we get the call… 

"Oh, my God! You guys are geniuses! You answered every problem we had with the material. It's so fresh and lively! It reads like butter! So glad we reached out to you!" 

Greg and I just sat there relieved that we didn't just commit career suicide. "Thank God, our hunch had paid off." 

But the fact of the matter was this thing had gone through so many rewrites, so many egos putting in their two cents and got so cluttered with so many other ideas that didn't belong… They had forgotten what they liked about the script in the first place. 

The original draft was really what they wanted all along, but they felt the need to cater to every other director, writer and producer who felt they had to put their stamp on it. It wasn't until a few weeks later that we owned up to what we had done, but by that time, they were so grateful they didn't seem to mind that we pulled a fast one on them. Unfortunately though, the company had waited too long and they went out of business, so the script eventually came back to us anyway.

So now you get an idea of why we chose to do something as crazy as producing our own movie. It gives us a chance to test our theories… To explore our vision, not a committee's… And better yet, to get another movie actually made.

But don't misunderstand us. We don't hate studio films, we love them when they're done right. We're not out to make some existential-hard-to-understand-artsy-fartsy piece - not that there's anything wrong with that - But that's just not our style. We make genre-driven, popcorn movies. This is what we're making. We just feel that the bar needs to be raised…

(To be continued… Next, more collaboration and taking it to the next level…)

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Friday, November 7, 2014

Ranting from the Creative Mind (part one)

Now that we've gone over a couple of the movies that inspired our vision of "NOIR," we thought we would get real with you and expose the nuts and bolts of why we decided to make the project ourselves, and not market it to the Hollywood Studios and Production Companies… 

I warn you, some of it's not pretty, but I promise you it's all true. And the truth is it comes down to creativity and opportunity. Too much of one, and not enough of the other.

I know you've probably heard it many times before, but it's a fact that screenwriters get very little respect in the motion picture industry, unlike television where the writer is king. 

"And that always stuck in my craw!"

If I had a nickel for every time someone in the industry said, "Don't rock the boat, just do what they tell you…" I'd have enough money to finance my own major motion picture.

But if you're a screenwriter who wants to be a filmmaker, you're really fighting an uphill battle, because no matter how well you spin a word on the page, no one wants to hear anything about you directing - it's just too damn hard for your reps to sell that package. 

Which is really odd since there's so much great television out there now, you would think who better to helm a project than the guys who created it. Furthermore, even in the feature world, there's been a lot of great writer/directors out there… namely, Tarantino, Nolan, Rodriguez, Coppola, Lucas, Carpenter, Zemekis, Spielberg, The Wachowskis, and the list goes on and on… 

But the reality is no one is willing to put their ass on the line for you nowadays. Not when there's a $100 million at stake. (Now I know there's always an exception to the rule, and we'll talk about that later, but I'm talking about the norm here.)

So you accept your lot in life and you figure if you play their game and do your time, your opportunity will come eventually… But it never does. 

Then one day you wake up and you're faced with the cold-hard facts that very few studio films, even with big-name talent attached, ever get made. So after a while, you get tired of handing your best material over to the studios only to wind up in that awful purgatory called, "Development Hell." Then years go by and you realize you're no closer to your goal than when you first started out. 

Well, that's when we said, "F**k this! We have to do something… Something drastic! Because this shit ain't working!" 

We even took time off and spent our own money making documentaries… At least we were shooting something! 
But even that turned into a whole new set of challenges… But that's another story for another time. 

So after icing our heads from beating them against the brick walls of the studios, our good friend and producing partner, Gerald Nott, came to us and said, "Why not do, 'NOIR?'" 

And it was like, "BING!"

You see, "NOIR," was a project that had been swimming around in our heads for years. A project that we loved, but we never bothered developing further, because we knew the studios would never make it in its purist form. 

But now… Now with the advances in inexpensive cinema-grade cameras (some with 4K recording) and editing software (God, how I wish we had this stuff back when we were in film school…) and our experience in shooting documentaries, we finally saw a way of pulling it off on a micro budget. And it dawned on us, "This - just - might - work!!!" 

And we figured if we could pull enough favors and do most of the shooting and editing ourselves… then we could do something really unique and it would give us the chance to show people the vision we always wanted to express.

The bottom line is we want to entertain you the way we want to be entertained… and just so you know… we're a tough crowd! But the key is to create a great story. And man have we got one for you. We can't wait to show what we're cooking up. Now, it's not going to be easy. It's bold, it's ambitious, and yes, it's a bit crazy, but we're committed to making it happen one way or another.

And since we're going to be working on "NOIR" for the next few months, we thought we'd share our creative process with you… Not sure what to expect yet, but we'll be as open and honest with you as we can - good or bad. Remember, a lot of this is going to be new to us as well. And hopefully, we'll be able to pass on a bit of insight and maybe offer a little inspiration as production moves along. But one thing you can count on… it won't be boring.

So stay with us and see how it all turns out.

(To be continued…  Next, collaboration and frustration…)

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