Written and Directed by…

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nI’m one who finds it difficult to see living characters on typewritten, well-formatted pages of a movie script. I suppose that’s why I feel a kinship (that of a very distant relative) with the likes of Mike Leighand that for more reasons than that we are the same age (71) and height (5′ 7″).

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Mr. Leigh, as I’m sure you know, follows the road less traveled as a moviemaker. Instead of sitting at a desk staring at Final Draft and ploughing through three acts, he carries the concept to rehearsal where talented and creative actors bring the story to life.

I’ve just finished viewing (again) “Another Year” (2010) which received one Oscar nomination and Another Yearanother ten wins and thirty-one nominations. As the story unfolds on the screen one feels as if he’s sitting in a room or standing on the street with real people, in real-time, doing real things.

I was taught early on that characters and stories should be larger than life because no one purchases a ticket to see the commonplace. I’ve since learned that what fastens our minds to the screen as much as spectacular computer-generated imagery is a sense of, “Yes, I know how she feels;” or “Yeah, that’s the way my family behaves.”

Not surprisingly, Leigh lists Yasurjiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” among his top ten favorite movies. Their styles bear an unmistakable resemblance.

One observes several commonalities that flow through movies written and directed by Mike Leigh. He 1.MikeRob-Daveleaves wiggle room for good actors to improvise so that the character’s live and breathe and take on characteristics one might not have imagined while typing on a page. He hires actors that can do just that.

Here’s the way he’s quoted in the February 13, 2005 edition of the New York Times:

The truth is, I remain the guy with no script who is very unforthcoming about what the film will be about and who won’t discuss casting, which is the biggest sin of all. I will not talk about a film, even if there is a massive budget, if there are strings attached about casting.

And so he picks actors willing to spend months developing their characters.

I get the impression that he only vaguely has a preconception about how a film will end. I smile and sigh as I remember having my head jammed with climax, resolution, dénouement, and the like. One of my favorites from his repertoire, as I’ve already mentioned, is “Another Year.” In the end, he throws us just a bit of hope for a tragic character, then snatches it away rather than let us have our way with it. After all, there are not many things in life that we’re allowed to put our own ending on. A teaching from the Old Testament states a theme repeated in every religious system since man first looked outside himself for the answers to life: Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).

Here’s Mr. Leigh’s philosophy of how he closes out a movie:

I always think it’s important for the audience to walk away from the film with stuff to work with, to think about, to wonder what happened next, and argue about and reflect on. For me, the film you can happily walk away from and never think about again is not as good value as the one that you take with you and deal with, and savour the flavour for some more time to come (www.actorhub.co.uk).

So, for the screenwriter, Mr. Leigh’s method is worthy of more than a casual look. His method probably will work for only one in a thousand writers, but he teaches us something valuable about the script to screen process. And at the top of the list is that our character’s must have room to breathe, and our action must be flexible. Space for the actor, and space for the director. It’s a matter of open-ended creativity—and trust. In other words, the final draft is best written in a rehearsal room and on the set.

An ideal setting for a movie company on location should find the director and actors gathered around a writer who sits with a script on her lap, a magic marker in one hand, and a pencil in the other.

Vera DrakeI recommend viewing, or viewing again, “Vera Drake” for a taste of Mike Leigh’s brand of work. Talk about relevancy. The movie is based on the true story of abortionist Vera Drake, who’s beliefs and practices clash with the mores of 1950s Britain. A conflict that leads to tragedy for her family. A movie that came to life during long rehearsals and on the set. A classic example of a movie written and directed by

Shooting the Hero … Shot

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nI was reminded of a seldom mentioned facet of moviemaking while on location during the filming of a pilot for a new reality series. At the end of the last day of shooting the director called for the “Hero Shot.”

A Hero Shot finds the camera positioned lower than the subject being filmed, and then faced upward to make people look larger than life. It gives him or her dominance. On this particular day my friend Butch, the series star, walked through a swampy area toward a camera sitting just above the wiregrass. Another hero shot showed a low angle rear view of Butch firing his trusty revolver at an unseen target in the thicket. Pretty impressive.Rocky2

The Hero Shot is more often than not used for the movie poster. Here’s one of Rocky Balboa I have on my office wall.

George Reeves supermanThis iconic Hero Shot of George Reeves as Superman in the TV series captured my imagination each week back in the 50s.

The idea for the Hero Shot is said to come from female film director, Leni Riefenstahl.  In 1934 the German director made one of the most riveting and infamous films of all time, a document of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremberg AdolphNazi party rally called Triumph of the Will. Here’s how Riefenstahl used the Hero Shot in a most chilling scene.

??????????????????????????????????Back to light entertainment. How about this shot of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye front and center.

And who hasn’t looked up at Roy Hobbs before he hits the epic home run in one of the Roy Hobbsgreatest scenes ever in a sports movie.

The Hero Shot is not only a good angle during filming, it works for a screenwriter as well. Think about wrapping it all up on the last day of shooting. You’re sitting in your lawn chair on the set and the director calls for the Hero Shot. What will it be? Think about it. Storyboard it.

Some Glad MorningHere’s my vision for “Some Glad Morning.” Noah and Sara Grace connected again. That’s my whole screenplay summarized in that one low-angle shot.

If you’re doing a TV series, the Hero Shot will probably be repeated in some form at the beginning of each episode.

Even a commercial product may have its low-angle Hero Shot as seen in the closing ground level shot of a tooth whitener:

AnchormantwoI close with this tongue-in-cheek Hero Shot from one of the most marketed movies in recent years: Anchorman 2. Here we have our favorite news team standing larger than life for their Hero Shot.

Thinking about the Hero Shot in the context of your screenplay helps sharpen the image of the protagonist. Difficulty visualizing a Hero Shot is perhaps symptomatic of a hero that’s not had his heroic moments.  Or, a fuzzy idea as to what makes him or her heroic. Give it some thought, then design your movie poster.

THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT: Manageable and Realistic Production Goals for First-Timers

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nIt’s quite simple. A hero wants something, takes action to get it, and meets conflict leading to a climax and resolution. Sound familiar?

These elements hold true whether you’re writing a feature-length or short movie. (Pause for a couple beats.) Notice I said writing a movie. Writing a movie  has a sweeter sound than writing a screenplay. It triggers more inspiration, drive, and incentive. Visualization. Or as Jennifer Van Sijll says it: Cinematic Storytelling. Now back on task.

The neat thing about a short movie is that you follow the same process as the long form, but you hit the points quickly, concisely, emphatically, energetically, definitively, and then move on. No fluff. No filler.

Coming up with a short film sounds easy but in many respects it’s more difficult than its big imagesbrother. You have to engage the viewer immediately. Hero, need, action, conflict. Boom, boom, boom! Relentless. You have to get the viewer’s attention in the first few frames, keep their attention, then throw a surprise or unexpected twist at them that generates the obligatory self-inflicted head slap.

At the outset the goal of the writer should be to generate a set-up in which things are not what they seem. The more things aren’t what they seem, the better.

newsThe daily news is full of short stories. Take one that’s interesting and throw in an unexpected turn of events. The “man bites dog” twist we all learned in our high school writing class.

Also, you don’t want your audience to think too much. There’s not enough time. One short pause in attention to figure something out and the whole thing is ruined. It’s kind of like passing through some of our south Georgia towns. Don’t blink as you pass through or you’ll miss it.

So a key word I’m going to throw in here is keep it simple. Ha! Got your attention. You were expecting one word, but you got three. You didn’t have to think much about the discrepancy between expectation and reality—just a brain flash. That’s what we want in short stories. More Bugs Bunny than “Bugsy Malone.” More comic book than classics. That is unless you’re doing a serious short or documentary. Presently we’re talking about light, entertaining stuff for your first go round.

Of course, the primary thing that gets a writer/producer notice in the bigs is originality. That’s what makes or breaks the short film. Hundreds are being produced while you read this. Only those ideas that no one’s filmed before will rise to the top. And yes, there are a few million yet untold short stories out there waiting like ripe fruit to be picked.

I’ve always thought this sequence from “The Dream Team” is a short story within the long story. It hasdream team all of the elements mentioned above. We’re led to believe one thing, and then WHAM, we learn that things were never as they seemed. Here’s a clip I edited to demonstrate the unexpected twist.

Now about filming a short story. Short stories can be filmed quickly with little or no budget. The emphasis is on the story, not props, special effects, or exotic scenery. A short film might have only three or four locations requiring just a few takes. Some have only one location, as is the case with one short film where the whole thing takes place in a board room.

Short films don’t require great acting skills. A short script means shorter rehearsals, preparation, and shooting time. Barebones equipment like a prosumer camcorder and a decent microphone will get the shortjob done. The trend now for shooting low-budget short films is the use of a DSLR camera. Most new DSLRs have more impressive specs than similarly priced camcorders. Handheld is as effective as a mounted camera—better in most instances as it gives the viewer a sense of being part of the action.

Another advantage of doing a short story is that you get to be the writer, producer, director, and editor. Probably even the director of photography/camera person. It’s easy to find friends for jobs like holding the mic boom, doing makeup, arranging sets, and the like. Most jump at the chance to see their names on the credits roll.

Short works can be effectively edited with iMovie on the low end, or Final Cut Pro for a more professional outcome.

Manageability and obtainability. That’s the advantage of a short script and film as one breaks into moviemaking. All of the skills and experience acquired making a short film translate well to the feature-length production.

sundanceGetting your work out there, and getting yourself discovered is as simple as uploading to one of the ever-growing number of film festivals. Withoutabox, used to upload films to festivals, is quick and easy, making competing in festivals a snap.

So, go ahead. You can do the whole thing, from script to screen, in a couple weeks. You may have a winner. The number of film festivals and call for short works is at an all time high. Why not you? Why not now? Let me know how it goes.

 

Screenwriting by and about Seniors

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_n

People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when…
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.
—Ogden Nash, Old Men

Pushing 71 years of age I am becoming more sensitive to the particular challenges presented to seniors in the movie business, particularly in screenwriting.

Young readers, this is for you as well as your elders for at least three reasons: (1) You will one day be old if providence is kind to you; (2) at some point you will need to interact with older members of your profession; and (3) a screenplay you write will possibly touch on the theme of aging and the aged.

nashstampThe words of Ogden Nash are at once comical and sad. I am not at all surprised that younger writers don’t pay much attention to their elders in the business. I well remember a sense of just tolerating the older crowd when I was in my twenties. I would listen to their advice, observe their work, and attempt meaningful conversations with older men and women, but never really took up much time with them. However, I’m fully aware that many wise young wordsmiths have high regard and excellent working relationships with their seniors.

Still, there is a general understanding that the older ones need to exit stage left and make room for the new generation. At least that’s the apparent signal perceived by most of us who have been around a few more decades than the rest.

Of course this works both ways. It may also be observed that some of the more experienced members of our profession don’t take the younger crowd as seriously as we should. I experienced this when I was younger, and resented it immensely. The Apostle Paul once advised a very young pastor: Let no man despise thy youth. As a teacher I took this to heart and averted the discouragement that one faces as a newbie in a chosen profession.

The fact is, there is much to be learned from those at opposite ends of the age spectrum. While taking screenwriting downloadcourses through the UCLA professional studies in screenwriting I was made keenly aware that today the movie business is a young person’s world – and rightly so. Young minds bring fresh and relevant material to the table. At times I felt outdated. I didn’t take exception to that because in some respects it’s true.

On the other hand I had a grasp of life experiences that cannot be taught in the classroom or gleaned from the textbooks. Sometimes I had an audience when sharing from my accumulated information base – sometimes not.

William-GoldmanWilliam Goldman was born August 12, 1931, placing his age at 83 in 2014. According to the IMDb, he has a film, “Heat,” in post-production and is currently writing a script entitled “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” Although I know of no other octogenarian who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Goldman in the business, all of us who have been around longer than we ever expected to be feel a certain kinship.woody-allen-2

But, of course the champion of the 70+ club can be none other than Woody Allen, born December 31, 1935. What else can you say? His work at age 78 speaks for itself.

Recently I’ve studied a few movies that deal with problems associated with aging to better understand how to deal with this theme in my current screenplay, “Some Glad Morning.” I recommend these works to screenwriters who might incorporate some of these relevant issues in their own screenplays.

Among the titles that I have studied recently, the following stand out:

Tokyo Story (1953), written by Kogo Noda and Yassujiro Ozu (who also directed the film).

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), written by Ol Parker (screenplay) and Deborah Moggach (novel); directed by John Madden.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), written by Vina Delmar (screenplay) and Josephine Lawrence (novel); directed by Leo McCarey.

A Late Quartet (2012), written by Seth Grossman and Yaron Zilberman; directed by Yaron Zilberman.

How About You (2007), written by Jean Pasley (screenplay) and Maeve Binchy (short story); directed by Anthony Byrne.

Any, or all the above films are potentially helpful for screenwriters working on projects involving senior citizens.

The good news for writers getting on in years is articulated by Max in the movie, The Legend of 1900:

You’re never really done for, as long as you’ve got a good story and someone to tell it to.

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Films and Screenplays that Capture the Tempos of Life

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nLife flies past us so swiftly that few of us pause to consider those who have lost the tempo of today. Their laughter and their tears we do not even understand for there is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young. There is a canyon between us, and the painful gap is only bridged by the ancient words of a very wise man: “Honor thy father and thy mother.”

Thus reads one of the title cards for Leo McCarey’s masterpiece “Make Way for Tomorrow.”

When McCarey won the best director Oscar for The Awful Truth the same year he released Make Way for Tomorrow, he remarked that the Academy gave him the award for the wrong movie.

I watched this movie many years ago while studying film. But it’s only just now that I understand its importance. I suppose turning 70 and being married going on 50 years has something to do with that.

But the screenwriter, filmmaker, and movie buff in me tells me there’s more than mere sentimentality here. This movie is a cinematic masterpiece in its writing, directing, acting, editing, and … well every facet of its making. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as Barkley and Lucy Cooper, by today’s standards, would be shoo-ins for acting awards.

The film opened in theaters May 9, 1937—in the midst of the depression years. It addressed a social problem that is as relevant today as it was then—perhaps more relevant. What happens to the elderly when they are unable to take care of themselves? What responsibility lies with their children to care for the ones who, from the beginning, cared for them? How do we handle the loneliness associated with the old ones being put out to pasture by society.  What do we make of  those who face the dissolution of marriage relationships spanning decades?  Watch this from Make Way for Tomorrow.

I’ll not make this a dissertation on growing old, but rather a charge to writers and filmmakers today to write and film material that pricks the hearts and consciences of audiences outside the well-represented issues of race and sexual orientation. Issues that stir the consciousness en masse because they hit home with all of us regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, sexual preferences, or political viewpoint—Issues regarding family. In particular, issues about what happens when mom and pop grow old and must depend on others.

Now there’s an issue a population bent on staying young—at least looking young—would rather sweep under the rug. And I fear this is an issue writers and filmmakers would rather sweep under the rug as well. Unless, that is, we can give the elderly a magic carpet ride to get them out of the way as in Cocoon.

I can tell you this, the over 70 crowd goes to movies, buys DVDs, and watches Pay Per View TV. And it’s time for the movie industry to connect with this ever-expanding demographic.

Here’s something I learned from watching Make Way for Tomorrow that I’d long forgotten. Movies should be an experience, not an exercise. By that I mean from the script to screen movies can resemble a ninth grade theme paper. We are so conditioned to keep the action going, get into scenes late and leave early, push the plot, and hit the beats that in many cases we’ve sterilized and pasteurized the process from beginning to end.

What comes home when we watch the older films, made when times were hard and budgets low, is how so much can be done with so little when we slow down, take a deep breath, and just make human movies, by human beings, for human beings.

I am touched by how directors like McCary are not afraid to hold the camera in place to allow an important moment to sink in—to allow actors to be actors and not animated characters.

I’ve actually gone back to a script I’m writing about an elderly man who checks himself into a rest home to escape his dysfunctional family and am looking for places to slow things down to let the story breathe a little.

When we’re writing about older folks, the pace shouldn’t rival Iron Man 3. Slow down. Process. Live. Breath. Experience. Weep. Allow folks time to laugh because something touches a memory, not because your movie injects a bit of perfectly executed comedic timing. Give a viewer the opportunity to cry because a scene tugs on the heart stings, not because you’ve been trained like a Pavlovian dog to hit the Act 2 low point.

Segue to Yasujiro Ozu and “Tokyo Story.” Almost the same theme. And again, not a happy ending, because when people get old and become a burden to their loved ones, there’s seldom a happy ending unless, out of a religious view of the hereafter, one considers death a happy ending.

The old couple’s children in the movie are well-meaning. They’re just too busy to give their mom and pop much attention. The children feign happiness at their arrival, but we soon learn that Shukishi and Tomi’s visit is not the welcome event it first appears to be. The dear old couple has to deal with the detachment born of a chasm that has grown wider with the passage of time—the chasm between being old and being young.

Here’s a heartrending scene from Tokyo Story in which the elderly couple come to grips with the fact the only place they can feel at home is, well, at home.

What we also see here is a sad reality of a couple growing old and confronting their nearness to death. The elderly have to cope with that daily, and their coping mechanisms are greatly misunderstood.

When the grandmother becomes dizzy and stumbles a bit on the seawall, the grandfather turns and asks her what has happened? The little episode is laid aside as the product of a sleepless night. You see, their children, to get them out of the way for a while, have shuttled them off to a seaside resort. During their first night a wedding party below them (or maybe above them) keeps them awake. The sequence cuts to the housekeepers cleaning up the mess.

During past viewings I’ve thought it very rude that grandpa doesn’t reach down and give grandma a hand. I think I now understand why. Denial. That’s the coping mechanism the elderly often use to face death. Especially the death of a spouse. The dizzy spell portends the truth. Grandma is ill. Grandma is going to die. Grandpa can’t deal with that. This little spell is just a trivial thing, he rationalizes. She’ll just hop back up like she did at age 25 and we’ll be on our way.

Ozu knew exactly what he was doing. Here again we see a master director slowing the film’s pace down to embrace a little thing, while at the same time accentuating the rapid passage of time. Showing how minutes can be a lifetime. His low camera angles contribute to the effect.

In Make Way for Tomorrow, Barkley and Lucy’s five hours before the train leaves becomes the life they never had during their 50 years together. But at the last they have it. Only a few hours. A lifetime together. Each hour = ten years.

So, American film school grad, you’ll just have to pardon McCarey and Ozu for holding the camera on two faces longer than your beat sheet would dictate. You’ll have to pardon the talking heads, because that’s what real people do when everything else is stripped away. They talk. And we, the audience, identify with that. So please don’t blow up the plaza. Just let two old people in love have their say.

For many of us, that’s all we have.