Archive for October, 2014

“I’ve had to convince the studio that I know this is not a $20,000 Alexa package, but I’ll challenge you to tell the difference once I’m done grading this footage.”
Daniel Myrick on shooting a film with a camera smaller than an iPhone


Where’s the camera?

You want to know something really scary this Halloween? Writer/Director Daniel Myrick (Blair Witch Project) shot his latest film Under the Bed with a camera smaller than most video camera monitors. Smaller than even some of the lens used with it. There’s a reason it’s called a pocket camera. The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema is 5 inches long and weighs just 12.5 ounces. What’s also small is the price—$995. Trick or treat?

Sure you have to add a lens and an SD card before you can use it—and a few more professional accesories to use it in the manner that Team Myrick did to shoot Under the Bed—but a sub-thousand dollar camera to shoot a feature film that doesn’t look like—ah, cough, cough, The Blair Which Project—forgetaboutit.

The film won’t be released until next year, but I just read an interview with Myrick about the film over at No Film School.

“We used the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, much to the surprise of a lot of people. I had purchased one when they first came out and was really impressed with the latitude they offer, and their compactness. There was just a lot to like about the basic image sensor. It certainly has its foibles with accessorizing and things like that, but nothing that can’t be overcome. The image sensor itself was producing 12-bit RAW right on the SD cards and simultaneously spitting out 10-bit ProRes from the connector — on a little camera not much bigger than a cigarette pack, which was very exciting. I said this could be a good fit for the kind of movie I’m shooting, which is very low budget in a very contained space — I don’t have sets where I can fly walls away and back the camera off and that sort of thing.”
Daniel Myrick

P.S. I think the Blackmagic Pocket camera would be perfect for the “Little Fat Girl in Ohio” that Francis Ford Coppola predicted was on her way to becoming the new Mozart.

Related posts (on low-budget filmmaking):
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Edward Burns
Making a $5,000 Feature
Filmmaking from a Coffin (Buried)
Edward Burns ‘Newlyweds’ (Part 2)—Think of yourself as an indie band.
Sputnik, Sundance & Kevin Smith
Paranormal Screenwriting Activity

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 6) Touches on why I think The Blair Witch Project was really the beginning of a new form of cinema (in part because one of the cameras they used was a consumer Hi8 camera).

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme
Theme=Story’s Heart and Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“You want to frustrate expectations, but you also want to break clichés in a surprising way. So in Hoosiers instead of benching the good player and putting in the bad player, [the coach] benches the good player and there’s no one to replace him. They play with four players instead of five.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Below is the Hoosiers scene (written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Ansaugh) where  the star basketball player isn’t listening to the coach (talk about frustrating expectations) but to those in the crowd all is good because that player keeps scoring. The coach takes him out of the game, and a few moments later when another player fouls out of the game the coach defies the expectations of everyone else in the building (well, maybe not Dennis Hopper) by not letting the star player back in the game. He deals with the dilemma by chosing to play with four players instead of five.

P.S. So the next time you have a guy run out of bullets, before you have him throw his gun at the person chasing him ask yourself what would Coach Gene Hackman (or screenwriter Pizzo) do to defy/frustrate expectations.

Related posts:
Hoops, Hoosiers, & Hollywood
Postcard #14 (Hickory, Indiana)
Storytellers from Indiana
Movie Cloning (Avoiding Cliches)
Chaplin on Embracing Cliches

Scott W. Smith



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Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.”
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection)

No Trespassing

“I think the opening image is usually about theme. And the question you might ask is what comes next? Character? Setting? Tone? Genre? Well, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because there’s no perfect answer. I want you to think about your images and your sounds in your opening in order that you’re doing two or three things at once. In Citizen Kane we immediately get the castle, we get Xanadu. But is it just location? No way. We see the animals so it’s like a zoo, and a cage to suggest some kind of prison—and it’s dark. And there’s a NO TRESSPASSING sign at the gate and the camera’s going over that as we come in to discover the rosebud moment. So we know this movie thematically and storywise is going to be about trespassing on someone’s life and kind of digging in. So you see it’s not just about location. A great movie can never spend three minutes on this and three minutes on that, it’s got to being doing all of this at the same time.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. I’m sure someone has written a nice article about opening movie shots (or at least opening scenes) and how they tie into the theme of the film. If you know of one put it in the comments or shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com . And if you have a favorite opening image that ties into the meaning of the film let me know as well. The open images of the movie Witness being about community has been well documented. One could even say there are two communities at odds in that movie. The crooked, violent police community and the pious, anti-violent Amish community. The goal of one community is to kill the Harrison Ford character while the goal of the other community to preserve his life.

Related Post:
‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’
‘Study the Old Masters’—Martin Scorsese
Stagecoach (2.0) The John Ford film that Orson Welles watched 40 times before and/or during the making of Citizen Kane.
Screenwriting Quote #166 (Joseph McBride) McBride manually typed an entire copy of the Citizen Kane script while a student in college.
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that…”
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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“The choice between good and evil is really no choice at all.”
Robert McKee

Back on the first day of summer I wrote a post called the Screenwriting Summer School where among other things I pulled quotes from The Dialogue Series that was on You Tube. Since the full interviews of that series have disappeared online I think this month I’ll round the summer school (summer lasts longer in Florida—it was 85 degrees today) with some quotes from Jim Mercurio’s Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course.

“I believe characters boil down to pretty much one clear dilemma. A dilemma is a choice between two equally good things or two equally bad things. Like in The Godfather, Michael the very good thing: to not be a criminal, to not be in the Mafia, to unlike his family stay outside of it, that’s pretty good right? However you know what’s also good? Saving his family from complete destruction, ‘cause once his father dies Sonny and Fredo aren’t going to do it, right? So he has a choice. You can look at it as a hard choice, I don’t want to be a criminal  but I don’t want my family to die. But either way it’s a choice he doesn’t want to have to make. ”
Filmmaker/ consultant Jim Mercurio ()


Related post:
Screenwriting Quote #11 (Eugene Vale) What Mercurio calls Dilemma, I think Vale would call a disturbance.

Scott W. Smith



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“I learned a technique from a guy many years ago, a working backwards technique. So I start with the question, How do I want the audience to feel? And I write that answer, I want the audience to feel like their life has value. Okay. I draw an arrow down. How do I visually see that happening in the movie? The bad guy, the old drunk gets a medal as a saint. Then I work backwards from that. What’s the scene that culminates that? Oh, he gets honored at a kid’s saint ceremony in a Catholic school. Then you just go, what precedes that? I start with this working backwards process, so in very broad strokes, I just start to kinda feel it out. I don’t have to do the whole script, but you know, I have to know where I’m going in order to get there… Then, once I’ve done that to where I feel good about where I’m headed – granted I usually just do the third act, ‘cause that’s where you wanna know where you’re heading – I then outline scene to scene going forward…This is pretty detailed, pretty much every scene, just a one-liner. So and so does this. So and so does that, a one liner…I write the longhand the first draft, and it’s abbreviated – I write one line of action. I don’t believe in a lot of description. Then I start the dialogue. I then get to the computer, and I type through. As I’m typing, I’m editing, so now I’m on the second draft, which is great. So when I’m done, and type THE END, I have basically a second draft, which is way better than the first draft on paper ‘cause now I’ve had time to think about it, digest it, and check it, and work it through.”
St. Vincent writer/director Theodore Melfi
WGA, West interview by Dylan Callaghan

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“How many actors are so unlikable and loveable in the same moment? That’s Bill [Murray].”
Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent)

“When you have a character as disagreeable as Vincent (Bill Murray), if you can keep him disagreeable, even when he becomes agreeable, you have done the job. Because you and I ultimately both know how the movie’s gonna end. Period. We might not know exactly how they’re gonna get there, we might be surprised along the way, but ultimately, you don’t go sit down and watch a movie called The King’s Speech and think that the King is gonna stutter in his last speech. We all know watching a movie called St. Vincent, that Vincent is gonna end up being the kid’s saint. This is not a thriller. To me all movies are about the journey to get there…This movie to me, basically, in one word, is ‘value.’ How we have a value, and we think we have a value as human beings. We all have a value and that value is equal. Over time, the prostitute has a value, the single mom has a value, the old drunk has value, the Catholic priest has value, the kid has value.”
Theodore Melfi
WGA, West interview by Dylan Callaghan

P.S. Saw St. Vincent this afternoon and enjoyed it throughly. One of my favorite films of the year. Strong writing and great casting, with Murray at the center as a man at the end of his rope—and in real life heading for an Oscar nomination.

Related posts:
Postcard #74 (Bill Murray)
‘Lost in Translation’ Golf Scene
End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14)

Scott W. Smith

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Tennessee Williams felt that ‘apparent failure’ motivated him. He said it ‘sends me back to my typewriter that very night, before the reviews are out. I am more compelled to get back to work than if I had a success.’ Many have heard that Thomas Edison told his assistant, incredulous at the inventor’s perseverance through millions of aborted attempts to create an incandescent light bulb, ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ ‘Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks…’ read part of the rejection letter that Gertrude Stein received from a publisher in 1912.”
Sarah Lewis
The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Related posts:
Embracing the Near Win (part 1) 
Embracing the Near Win (part 2)
Tennessee Williams’ Start
Writing Quote #45 (Tennessee Williams)
Commitment in the Face of Failure
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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“Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”
Audio journalist Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a rock star. At least a rock star in finding authentic emotions.

Between Thursday and Sunday night I caught chunks of Blumberg’s live (and then rebroadcast) CreativeLive seminar Power Your Podcast with Storytelling and was enthralled with what he pulled off with the help of his class.

Don’t get caught up in the podcast part of his title if that’s not your thing, but focus on the storytelling aspect. While Blumberg’s background includes producing for NPR’s This American Life and most recently the podcast StartUp, his ability to talk storytelling was not only informative but moving.

In my last post, I covered some of the nuts and blots I took away from the sections of the talks I heard. Today I’ll fill in a little bit why I think it was one of the top creative seminars I’ve ever seen. (It was no surprise when I later found out that it is the same material that Blumberg presents when he teaches at Columbia University.)

While my last post mentioned the pre-interview process Blumberg did (with San Francisco-based artist Ann Rea), over the weekend I caught the full interview 90 minute he did with Rea and it was 100% engaging.

If you can, buy the $99 class just to salute Blumberg’s and Rea’s gamble and boldness. (A heck of a lot cheaper than taking it at Columbia.) I’ll try here to synopsize what made it special. Though this was meant to be a NPR-like radio program, I swear you could at least write a Lifetime movie script as you listen to Rea’s life story unfold.

What made it such a powerful tag team effort was the framework of questions that Blumberg asked and Rea’s honest answers. You could say the structure broke down into four acts. (I’m flying from my notes so some of the actual details may be a little off.)

1) The desire for Rea to paint at a young age, and the early support she got from her artistic talent. She won a scholarship to art school where she was an Industrial Design major. After graduating she moved to Dayton, Ohio and expectations for an artistic career fell away with the reality that student loans needed paid. (Downbeat)

2) But while in Dayton she met a man who would change her life. She met him the day she moved into her apartment and thought, “He’s my neighbor? Nice.” They got married and eventually dreamed about a life beyond the Midwest and agreed on trying the California dream. He landed a job in San Francisco and they took their goldfish and drove west. Life was full of positive expectations. (Upbeat)

3) The San Fran dream faded when his job was actually in Sacramento and they eventually settled in the suburb of Elk Grove where she spent years working various cubicle jobs with no satisfaction or artistic expression. Financial and marital problems followed until she decided for her own physical safety it was time to leave her marriage. She’d be starting over as their savings were depleted. (Double Downbeat)

4)  She started to paint again and as she talked about that process it reminded me of that line in Jerry Maguire where he’s writing his mission statement and says, “Suddenly, I was my father’s son again.” Rea wrote a business plan because she didn’t want to just paint—she wanted to make a living painting. In her first year as a full time painter she made more than she’d ever made before, and continues to grow her business. And now she helps others turn their artistic efforts into profit. (Double Upbeat)

What you don’t get from my overview is the authentic emotions that were tapped into—in real time over the course of the interview. The laughter and joy of their trip west, the pain of finding out her husband was a closet alcoholic, and the tears of rediscovering her artistic talents—of finding new life.

As a bonus at the end of the second day of the workshop, Blumberg played some edited clips from the interview thereby completing the whole creative process of showing pre-production, production, and post-production.

There were many valuable takeaways for any storyteller. Perhaps none more valuable than asking a question and shutting up. Just letting the person you’re interviewing give raw and honest answers as they tell their story. That’s how you capture the magic—how you find authentic emotions.

You can listen to the edited interview here.

And you can follow Blumberg on Twitter @alexblumberg.

P.S. I promise you I don’t make a penny from talking about CreativeLive (or Lynda.com or KelbyOne training) but it turns out Ann Rea has a class on CreativeLive called Make Money Making Art. I have not seen that, but based on her interview with Blumberg it’s worth at least checking out.

Scott W. Smith



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Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1)

“What is a story, exactly?”
Alex Blumberg

What were you doing at 4:16 this morning? I was watching a story unfold  about a woman who married the hunk who lived next door to her in Dayton, Ohio and moved west to live the California dream.  She found her dream, but not until she went through years of despair.

“Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”
Alex Blumberg

It wasn’t a movie, a TV show, or even a radio program, but the CreativeLive online class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling with Alex Blumberg. It was intriguing because you were able to watch how Blumberg takes a person out of the audience and shows how he would learn and tell her story for a program like This American Life (the NPR program where Blumberg was once a producer). Great stuff for anybody wanting to develop and tell better stories.

You can watch part two of the class for free today (and the rebroadcast tonight), or buy both days today for $79 (or $99 after today). I don’t recommend a lot of things to buy, but what I caught of Blumberg’s talk yesterday (and again early this morning) it’s solid material that you’ll find helpful and engaging if your storytelling is for features, TV, documentaries, radio, corporate videos, non-profit/NGO, or podcasts.

“Go where the medium lets you go.”
Alex Blumberg

He covers aspects like finding the core of the story, what hooks the audience into the narrative, what details do you need to tell, what surprises can you find, and what areas need explored. With the woman in the audience some of those areas were her dream of living in San Francisco turned into living in a suburb outside of Davis,CA. Her marriage and plans of 2.5 kids turned into a divorce and no kids. But there is a revelation and discovery on her way to finally living her California dream life—being a painter in San Francisco. If there’s a theme to her story it could be, “The road to happiness travels through many unhappy places.” (How’s that for a universal theme that would resonate with a few people worldwide?)

A few thoughts that I’ll pass on from Blumberg are his formula for nailing the thumbnail version of the story is, “This is a story about X, and it’s interesting because of Y.” When you tell people this framework for your story it must hit them at the gut level—they want to hear the story. It’s instantly intriguing.

This wasn’t an example from the workshop but I think works:”This is a story about ordinary people with the same name as famous people.” I’m flying from memory here, but I think that was the basic concept from a This American Life broadcast a few years ago. One of the ordinary people name was Willie Nelson and he lived in Texas where the more famous Mr. Nelson lived. Ordinary Willie Nelson kept voice mails left on his answering machine but obviously left for the famous Willie Nelson lived. It was an engaging program in the radio medium.

“Boredom is the enemy.”
Alex Blumberg

In telling your story look for the unexpected twists, contrasts, We like to hear about the pain, the a-ha moments, and the resolution/triumph.For true stories he looks for someone with direct experience rather than just an expert in the field.

Blumberg also said what he’s looking for when interviewing people is “authentic emotions.” Finding someone who went bankrupt because of a subprime loan they couldn’t afford to pay will tend to have more authentic emotion versus an expert on the topic. (Boots on the ground stuff, versus the view from afar.)

While it was a risk to interview an audience member in front of a live Internet audience, he certainly found “authentic emotions.”

If you can check it out today for free.

Related post:
Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 2) 
40 Days of Emotions
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Creative Learning 2.0
Chase Jarvis—A Creative Force one of the co-founders of CreativeLive
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) The California dreamer story belongs in the end of the rope club.

Scott W. Smith



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