Joy in the Morning: How Writers and Moviemakers Overcome Failure

JoyThe first time Steven Spielberg applied at USC he was rejected. An admissions officer ruled that his ‘C’ average was too low for admittance into the School of Cinematic Arts. That happens. But it didn’t stop there. He tried again and was rejected. Even after the third and final attempt his effort fell short. And so California State at Long Beach has the distinct honor of counting Spielberg among its alumni. In 1975 his movie “Jaws” grossed $60 million the first month of its release. Not bad for a ‘C’ student. Oh, and by the way, on May 6, 1994, Steven Spielberg received an honorary doctorate. You guessed it. The honor was bestowed by the University of Southern California.

Being rejected by USC wasn’t a major failure. It simply gave Spielberg more time to become a filmmaker — probably a much better filmmaker than he would have been wearing the shackles of academia. But the point I want to illustrate is that the movie business is fraught with failure. I know more out-of-work actors, screenwriters, crew persons, directors, designers, and such, than I know who are working.

Several actors I know are receiving food stamps and drawing unemployment benefits. Others are working in fast foods establishments, retail stores, and coffee shops. Yet they refuse to give up. When asked about their line of work, they inevitably reply, “I’m an actor” (or whatever their aspiration might be). I have a writer friend who has never seen a script make it beyond the submission stage, but he keeps business cards in his wallet that introduce him as a screenwriter.

Every year some 43 thousand ‘spec’ scripts are registered with the WGA. Of these about 150 are sold to production companies. Out of the 150 around 7 or 8 make it to the screen. So what keeps them coming? The lure of becoming a millionaire? According to a CNN report the California lottery has produced more millionaires in the past 10 years than has screenwriting.

In general, the odds are stacked against anyone hoping to break into the movie business. But one thing is certain. No screenplay will every become a movie that has not been completed, rewritten over and over and tirelessly shopped around to potential buyers. There is, and always will be, a market for good screenplays and jobs for good actors, work for talented crew members, openings for studio staff and jobs down the line for directors who relentless pursues her craft.

Now back to my friends who are literally starving artists. The one common thread that runs through each and every one of them is simply a love for the movie business. Some of my acquaintances are living in poverty. But get them together and talk about making movies and they will light up like children in a toy store. Most of them will work for practically nothing just for the experience. Unfortunately low-budget moviemakers like myself must rely on their willingness to do so in order to get our movies made. I always promise, however, that I will do everything in my power to showcase their work and assure them that proper credits will be given in all the right places.

Additionally, as long as the Lord blesses me with a little income, no out-of-work aspiring actor, writer, or other moviemaking hopeful, will pay for a meal when we meet to talk about the trade. You’d be surprised how one struggling for the opportunity to fulfill their dreams needs and appreciates a good meal. The pic to the left captures a few loyal and dedicated rising filmmakers who sacrificed much in joining me for a recent production. I assured them that as my company succeeds, they will succeed with me. Their sacrifices will not be forgotten.

The other day I told a man, who I hope to make the subject of a docudrama, that I have had far more failures than successes. I wanted to be honest with him up front so as not to promise anything I can’t deliver. He didn’t bat an eye. At our end of the spectrum everyone has had more failures than successes. We’ve grown to expect that. I’ve learned to respect those that are honest enough not to disown their misfires. But here’s the deal:

Forget those 10 steps to cinematic success books. You know what they are. You’re writing your own “How to” book. Every day you’re living out a future page of your best seller. Every day is a new day in your pilgrimage toward the show biz promised land. If one can avoid dragging the baggage of yesterday into this present day, the odds for succeeding are greatly enhanced. Stop sleeping with your setback. She’s a malevolent mistress. Get up in the morning and pursue your craft as a screenwriter, actor, cinematographer, director, producer, editor, or whatever. You may put bread on the table stocking merchandise at Wal-Mart, but you are a writer or filmmaker, not a stocker.

Writers have the advantage of needing nothing more than pencil and pad, or if you’re above the poverty line, maybe a typewriter or computer. One can write at anytime and anyplace. Let me inject that most serious writers don’t sit in Starbucks sipping cappuccino while tapping away at the Macbook and making regular contributions about their status to Facebook. Real aspiring, hungry writers have probably sold their Macbook and bought a cheap off-brand laptop with just enough memory to run a freebie scriptwriting app.

For actors and other movie tradespersons the day may consist of job hunting, online searches, networking and, above all, study and practice. I know one young actor who practices his craft while waiting tables at a local seafood restaurant. He daily transforms an otherwise mundane workplace into a sound stage. Working with local theater groups, enrolling in relevant classes at community colleges, reading, and watching (and analyzing) movies all serve to push one in the right direction. Ten dollars a month for a Netflix subscription is money well spent.

The point I’m making is that one’s life is greatly enhanced when you arise in the morning as a writer, or actor, or animator, rather than a failure. The Grand Architect built night and day into the system so as to give his creatures the opportunity to begin again each morning.

The most successful writer in the history of the Cosmos said it this way:

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, KJV)

The Last Pedestrian Update and Teaser

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nWhat does the little notebook say about things I learned during the filming of The Last Pedestrian? For sure, I find plenty of oft-repeated themes in my little black “Notes to the Director” book. Every shoot is a learning session. The stuff that you learn is stuff they forgot to tell you in film school. So one goes about writing one’s own textbook that’s made up as you go along. I urge the young students that help us on location to do the same. “Agree with your instructors,” I tell them, but pull out your notepad as you walk out the door and mutter to yourself, “Yeah, but it works this way.”

The first attention getter scrawled on the page is: THINK! My biggest failure time after time is not following the storyboard shot list exactly as planned. I always get swept up into the moment and leave the list in my back pocket. This is why, without fail, I need to begin using an AD. Especially as we dive into an upcoming feature-length film entitled, “Some Glad Morning.”

The other thread that weaves its way through my book is a reminder to keep the camera running. I’ve got to take “Cut” out of my vocabulary. At least I’ve started counting slowly to 10 before pulling the plug. I mean, we’re not using expensive film here. A hundred hours of digital footage costs no more than one hour with respect to the recording media. It never fails, though, I miss some of the best shots by yelling “cut” too soon.

Here’s a little teaser I put together from the ‘first look’ raw footage. I can’t say enough about the whole-hearted cooperation we received from the town of Douglas, GA while filming “The Last Pedestrian” there.

On Location with “The Last Pedestrian”

Here are some on location pics taken during the filming of “The Last Pedestrian” in Douglas, GA.

Setting Up

NightScene

Presentation

WALB

DSC_0554

Hospital

Animal Truck

DPSRep

Council

Rollem

Doug

Williams

toy-story-figure-riding-stuffed-animal

Ped1

Harry

Crew

Butch&Harry

Williams & Crew

Intersteller

Production of short film sets up in downtown Douglas

Production of short film sets up in downtown Douglas.

The Oops! Moment that Changes Everything

417980_10200174855440320_308108071_nIn Mike Leigh’s film, “Happy Go Lucky,” Poppy, Zoe, and Poppy’s younger sister, Suzy, go to visit another sister, Helen, who is pregnant. Helen lives with her husband, Jamie, in Southend-on-Sea. The mood of the visit, and actually the mood of the whole movie, changes subtly when Jamie, in a brilliant bit of subtext, blurts out the baby’s name despite Helen’s insistence on not revealing it before it’s born. Jamie has always submitted to Helen’s controlling ways, but in this Oops! moment things begin to change. The mood of the visit changes. The mood of the film changes. This often overlooked few seconds turns the Happy Go Lucky atmosphere into a narrative on the more serious issues of life.

Here it is:

I revisited my screenplay scheduled to begin filming July 24. I searched for that moment of mood change precipitated by an implicit word or action underlying the explicit occurrence. It wasn’t there. So, I injected a city council member who asks a perfectly innocent question as to why they must wait long hours in the board room for news about a local war hero’s struggle for life in a local hospital. However, before the mayor can give his coverup answer, one of his disgruntled lackeys blurts out, “Money.” From there the tenor of the meeting and the whole film changes from a light drama, to a dark mystery. When the council member spills out “Money” he is subversively revealing a sinister plot that straightaway rises to the surface.

Other examples of the Oops! moment came to mind, not the least of which is “War of the Roses.”

Here’s when it happens.

With a table full of dinner guests that Michael Douglas is trying to impress, he asks his wife, played by Kathleen Turner, to explain how they acquired the Baccarat wine glasses they’re using. Nervously, she tells the story about their trip to Paris, but her narrative begins to fall apart. Douglas finally cuts her off with, “To make a long story short…” From that point we dive into the dark side of the movie.

Looking for the Oops! moment in a movie is an intriguing exercise. Give it a try. The most useful employment of this activity is, of course, searching your own screenplay for that crucial bit of subtext that transforms the mood or tenor of the story.