Archive for November, 2010

“Most creators — and all would-be creators — simply aren’t obsessed enough.”
Eric Maisel

A few weeks ago I was talking to a couple filmmakers and we got to talking about a favorite topic of mine; Why are so many artists dysfunctional?  Take a handful of painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers and you’ll have more than your share of people who suffer from depression, mental illness or at least some phobia that haunts them. Alcoholism and drug abuse appears more common with this tribe.

So the big question is — why?

One of the filmmakers had an easy answer, obsession.

I instantly thought of Jackson Pollock painting in his barn. I thought of Van Gogh’s passion. I thought of Martin Scorsese and his own demons. Obsession may be as good and answer as I’ve heard.

“One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, a habit that has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating.”
Niyi Osudare
From the book One Hundred Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters/Karl Iglesias

Eric Maisel, PhD has written several books that touch on this issue including Creativity for Life, The Creativity Book, and The Van Gogh Blues. I haven’t read his books, but in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions he does make the distinction between positive and negative obsessions. He writes:

What exactly do I mean by a positive obsession?

A fair working definition is as follows: positive obsessions are insistent, recurrent thoughts or sets of thoughts, pressurized in feel, that are extremely difficult to ignore, that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.

For Van Gogh, for a period of time, sunflowers obsessed him. For Doestovshy, for decades, the question of whether an innocent–a “saintly man” –could survive in the real world haunted and obsessed him.

Georgia O’Keeffe obsessed about how to represent the desert, thrilling herself when her imagery of bleached bones satisfied her for a time.

It is no accident or coincidence that effective artists harbor preoccupations that rise to the level of positive obsession.

So maybe we just obsess too much about those creative souls who have negative obsessions. After all those are the ones that tend to fascinate us the most. Those are the ones books are written about and movies made of their lives.

If you have any books and articles that explore the similarities and differences of positive and negative obsessions toss them my way. I don’t think my obsession is going away from thinking about it anytime soon.

And as far as screenwriting obsessions—there are many. Why do people spend so much time and money on something when the odds are so against any meaningful return on investment? Why all the books, CDs, workshops, college degrees, screenwriting expos, script consultants, etc. if there wasn’t a screenwriting obsession in this country? Why do produced screenwriters continue though they often feel less than satisfied with the finished results of their script?

Maybe it has something to do with Van Gogh continuing to paint even though the appreciation for his work would come long after he died. I hope you can find that “positive obsession,” and can continue to work on your craft without losing your mind.

Scott W. Smith

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“In making art you declare what is important.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
Vincent Van Gogh

Several  years ago I attended a weeklong workshop at what is now known as the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine. I’ve mentioned before that the workshop I took and just visiting the towns of Rockport and Camden where worthwhile, but my real lasting memory of that trip was sitting at a table one meal with legendary photographers Arnold Newman and Mary Ellen Mary.

At that time the workshop also had a large library and a bookstore with tons of books on art, photography, and filmmaking. One of the books I purchased was Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland.  It’s a thin book—just 122 pages—that I find myself drawn to from time to time.

“It’s apparent that as some level, all art is autobiographical. After all, your brush only paints a stoke in response to your gesture, your word processor only taps out a sentence in response to your keystrokes. As Tennessee Williams observed, even works of demonstrable fiction or fantasy remain emotionally autobiographical. John Szarkowskowski once curated a show at the Museum of Modern Art titled Mirrors and Windows. His premise was that some artists view the world as if looking through a window at things happening ‘out there’, while others view the world as if looking in a mirror at a world inside themselves. Either way, the autobiographical vantage point is implicit.

If art is about self, the widely accepted corollary is that making art is about self-expression. And it is—but that is not necessarily all it is. It may only be a passing feature of our times that validating the sense of who-you-are is held up as the major source of the need to make art. What gets lost in that interpretation is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with someone outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear
pages 107-108

Note: The above Van Gogh painting is one of his works from the 15 months he spent in Arles, France.  The specific painting is of the inner court of the hospital in Arles where Van Gogh ( who struggled with metal illness) stayed for a time for after he was admitted after he cut his lower earlobe off in 1888.  In 1999 I visited the hospital (now a cultural center) in Arles which looks very similar to painting. If you ever have a chance to go to Arles they have a wonderful walking tour that takes you to many of the sites “the redheaded madman” (as he was known to some of his neighbors) painted.

Scott W. Smith

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“As we read a poem or watch a movie, we stare at some aspect of human experience. While seeming to pay attention only to immediate foreground details, we are actually looking at life in general. Someone has said that the writer’s task ‘is to stare, to look at the created world, and to lure the rest of us into a similar act of contemplation.’  The English novelist Joseph Conrad said something similar: ‘My task…is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel— it is, before all, to make you see.'”
Leland Ryken
Windows to the World

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“Mark’s script was the best page-turner I’ve ever read,  I flew through it.”
Director Tony Scott (Unstoppable) 

(Sorry for the strange format WordPress is acting funny today.)
After several days of talking about lower budget Indie films I thought I’d jump tracks and look at the other end of the spectrum. Unstoppable, which came with a budget of 100 million dollars, is a full-bore Hollywood film. I saw it last night and enjoyed the ride with the rest of the audience in the theater. In its simplicity it’s reminiscent to many films including Speed. 


In this case you missed the movie’s advertising, the story revolves around a runaway train. Simple, right?
The film was shot in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Since I’m a big fan of seeing parts of the country that don’t get much screen time, it was a fresh way to give a time-tested genre a new twist. The film was inspired by true life events regarding an unmamanned train incident known as the Crazy Eights incident in Ohio back in 2001.
The script was written by Mark Bomback, who also wrote Live Free or Die Hard starring Bruce Willis. Bomback is a graduate of Wesleyan University where he was an English major. A couple of years ago Vanity Fair mentioned Wesleyan’s Entertaining Class and how the small Connecticut school “has turned out a shockingly disproportionate number of Hollywood movies and shakers” listing among its graduates, Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Michael Bay (Transformers),  Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm).
That’s just a partial list that most films schools couldn’t match. (Anybody know why? Secret handshake?)
But back to Unstoppable, the movie.
“Like a lot of children, I liked trains as a kid, but I certainly wasn’t a fan. I started researching the film (Unstoppable) from a place of complete ignorance. Trains are ubiquitous, but you never think about how the entire country depends on them so it seemed like an interesting setting for a film. Trains haven’t been done in a while so I thought this might be a new way to introduce them; they’re so old school, they’re new school. We wanted audiences to think that Frank or Will could die at any moment and the movie would still continue because audiences would understand the train can’t derail until, at best, the end of the film. So the question is, how do you maintain that sense of tension? I did my best to stay within the bounds of realism and not go too far.”
Mark Bomback

in its opening week has made back about  a third of its production budget and is on track to break even in the states. But because it’s a universal action picture it will do well overseas it will probably cover it’s advertising budget and then some.

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This is The Un-official 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns (or Low-Budget Film Rule Book) based on his comments from the director’s commentary of Nice Guy Johnny, which he wrote, directed, co-produced and acted in. The film was made for $25,000. and shot in 10 days and features fine performances by co-stars Max Bush & Kerry Bishe.  The film and its iTunes & Netflix distribution model sets a new standard to follow for independent filmmakers producing sub-$100,000. movies.

1) Find up and coming actors who are talented and hungry. (And willing to do their own make-up/wardrobe.)

2) Use a crew you’ve worked with before, and shoot digitally.

3) Find free locations.

4) Don’t worry about film permits.

5) Don’t worry (obsess) about continuity.

6) Don’t mourn what you don’t have & ask lots of favors.

7) Pick locations where you can use little or no lights.

8.) Hire people for little money who can wear multiple hats on production. (But give them a cut of any profits.)

9) Even if you wrote the script & are the director— don’t be afraid to hold the boom mike when needed.

10) Don’t fall in love with a continual shooting schedule. Chip away shooting days and hours when you can.

If you haven’t seen the film, here is the trailer that will give you a taste of the results:

Scott W. Smith

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On the DVD director’s commentary of writer/director Edward Burns’ recently released film, Nice Guy Johnny, Burns offers a lot of insight as to how he and his small crew shot the feature film in just 10 days. Burns says the film was made for $25,000 (under $75,000 including deferments) by cashing in a thousand favors.

Burns used mostly free locations (shooting often at homes of  friends and family) and had the cast do their own make-up and provide their own wardrobe. And because they had a 3-5 man crew on most days the lighting was keep to a minimal and they shot with a digital Red camera, so there were no film costs.

Edward Burns in "Nice Guy Johnny"

Edward Burns: I have Will Rexer our DP here and he can tell you a little about our minimal lighting package and shooting this daylight scene.

Will Rexer: We approached this entire movie looking at locations and looking at light— looking for things that worked naturally for us. I think we had two lights in here (shoot at Puffy’s Tavern in above photo) that just sort of complimented with what God already gave us, and that’s pretty much how we approached most every scenes. We found locations that worked and lighting that worked and then we just complimented it and that was pretty much it.

EB: And one of the challenges, but also one of the blessings maybe, is we knew we weren’t going to have any generator obviously, we knew there was no truck with an entire lighting package. It was lights that could be plugged into any outlet that would have to be carried by our four man crew. And what that did was it freed us up to work much more quickly than we could have given sort of the normal size of a crew and a lighting package. But it also freed our actors up to be able to play within the spaces in a way that they probably couldn’t when you have  more detailed lighting.

WR: We could pick the time of day we wanted to be at a location and make that work for us and then we could compliment the lights. We didn’t have to turn around and have to get a reverse shot of you. We didn’t have to be moving 25 flags (light modifiers) and having a whole crew march around— we could just do it. It allowed us to work pretty freely.

EB: And it allowed us to make a film in ten days—which is unheard of. But there is a little bit of magic that comes with that because you’re shooting so many pages in one day that the actors are sort of in character the whole day. You’re knocking off so much work there’s a rhythm that everybody falls into that provides a certain kind of creative freedom.

So if you’re writing a script that you’re thinking of making as a low-budget feature it’s good to have a set of locations in mind that will work not only for the story but that will simplify the production process. In larger budget films there is always a concern of what is called a “company move” where the 75+ person team and equipment must be moved from one location to the next. Even on a big budget film producers and production manager have to find creative ways to limit the company moves.

For instances the entire Georgia part of Forrest Gump was shot within a ten mile radius of the opening bench scene  in Savannah, Georgia. (The Viet Nam scenes were even shot on the same plantation where Forrest grew up, and where they also shot Jenny’s house.) That meant the cast and crew could stay in the same hotels and the producers could avoid all the expenses involved with moving the cast and crew.

One of the reasons Sleeping with the Enemy (in which part of the story takes place in Iowa) was shot in South Carolina is because they could shoot the beach town and the small town that’s supposed to be in Iowa both in South Carolina without doing a major company move of shooting in two states that are far apart.

One low-budget trick that is often used to keep costs down is to shoot in one primary location. Burns doesn’t stick to that approach, but because he has such a small crew they are able to shoot in cars, at the beach, in a bar, in homes, and in New York City and on Long Island without it being a major hassle.

You can watch Nice Guy Johnny via iTunes, VOD, or Netflix.

Related posts: Edward Burns on Telling Smaller Stories.

The Ten Film Commandments of Edward Burns

Screenwriting Quote #146 (Edward Burns)

Screenwriting Quote #68 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

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The website indieWIRE has an excellant article called Toolkit Case Study: How Indie Hit “Winter’s Bone” Came to be. It walks you through the various stages of the five year journey that Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan took from first reading Daniel Woodrell’s book, through developing and financing, to the sale and distribution of their Sundance winning film Winter’s Bone.

Here’s a quick overview.

The book Winter’s Bone was optioned for high four figures or low five figures. They researched the Ozarks where they wanted to shoot and put together a photo album to get investors interested. After 25 potential investors passed on a project they got pretty far down the road with one investor before that fell through. Another financer stepped up agreeing to pay half of the budget at which point the descision was made to cut the budget in half and get the film produced.

The article points out along the way how casting directors Paul Schnee and Kerry Barden found six key actors. After the production was completed and the film edited they hired various people from publicist Laura Kim to producer rep Josh Braun to guide them as they prepared to sell the film. They made a deal with Roadhouse Attractions even before the film was shown at Sundance or picked up its awards.

As of this writing, the $2 million film has made just over $6 million at the domestic box office. Because prints and advertising (P&A) were kept low on this project I image by now everyone has made their money back and then some. Winter’s Bone is not an off-the charts financial success story. But it is an rare high-quality independent film that thankfully got made and found an audience.

And know that in that five-year period that they were working on getting the film made, there have been hundreds if not thousands of independent films that for one reason or another never found an audience or a distributor.

Lastly, when Winter’s Bone receives some Oscar nominations don’t forget the five-year journey that it took for the filmmakers to get to that point.

I also found a link to the Winter’s Bone press kit that is a solid  reference for filmmakers.

Scott W. Smith

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