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Posts Tagged ‘Masterclass’

“I love the idea of catching ideas. And they’re out there, millions and millions of ideas, and we don’t know them until they enter the conscious mind. And then we know them. And we see them and hear them and feel them. We know the mood of them, even if it’s just a small fragment of what could be a whole film or a painting or whatever. We fall in love with it for some reason. Something inside of us says, ‘This is a great idea for me.’ And then you write that idea down on a piece of paper in such a way that when you read what you wrote, the idea comes back in full. . . . I do equate catching ideas with the thing of fishing. You have to have patience. And I say a desire for an idea is like bait on a hook. So you are desiring or focusing. It could be daydreaming. Even when you’re walking around or moving about or talking, part of your mind is desiring ideas.”
—Filmmaker David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks)
MasterClass

Related links:
Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)  
Inside the Breaking Bad Writers’ Room and How Bad Ideas Can Lead to Good Ideas
Postcard #182 (“You get ideas from being bored.”—Neil Gaiman)
Filmmaking Full of Magic & Ideas 

Scott W. Smith 

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“How did I learn screenwriting? Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Long before Shonda Rhimes signed a contract with Netflix for $100 million, she graduated from a series of private schools, Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Dartmouth College, and and MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Being smart, talented, and driven, I don’t know exactly what scholarships and grants Rhimes received back in the ’80s and ’90s when she was in school, but today that education has a list price of over $500,000.

Perhaps that’s why she gives the following advice to young people interested in going to film school. (And this was before a global pandemic shook up the economy and film industry in ways that will take months or years to sort out.)

“I think that USC was really instrumental for me in getting me contacts and getting me acclimated. I came to Los Angeles not know a single person, and getting an internship, getting to know people, getting the introductions to things—USC was very helpful for that. Here’s what I think, ’cause I think film school is invaluable in that it’s an amazing little lab. And I did come in knowing a lot about production because of it, and that was really helpful as well. But I think it terms of just financially if you are hurting for money if you have to take out a lot of student loans, if there’s not a scholarship waiting for you, and you are worried about that—and frankly it’s different now. Student loans back when I went to school (because I’m an old lady) and going to school now are just different. So, to me, if you have to make the choice between going to film school, and coming out to L.A. and getting a job as a PA [production assistant] on a set, or a job as a PA in some writer’s office or something like that, get the job. Because I think there’s a lot you can get done with you writing at night, and getting a job during the day, and working your butt off and making contacts that way. I think it’s very, very, very expensive to go to school right now. And while I think that everybody should get a college education, I’m not necessarily sure you need a film school education.”
—Writer/Creator Shonda Rhimes  (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
MasterClass, Take the Job Over Film School

Now, you don’t need to do much digging to find production assistants in Los Angeles today complaining about the low pay and long hours of working as a PA in the film industry. On top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. On top of, as of this writing, potentially being laid-off or underemployed because of the shutdown over the coronavirus.

It’s a hard business. Would Rhimes have had the same success if she hadn’t taken the educational route she took? We’ll never know. But we do know there are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Tyler Perry who’ve had phenomenal success without ever attending college. (In fact, both of them dropped out of high school.)

But you have to create. And you have to get good enough at creating something that someone will pay you to create more and you can make a living. That’s the game. And one thing this pandemic has taught us is people still need entertainment (and toilet paper). Actual movie theaters may decline in coming months and years, but streaming content is in ultra growth mode. (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and others have all had recent jumps in daily viewership.)

Be as creative getting an education as you are with writing stories and creating videos with your friends. Avoid getting monster student loans that follow you for decades and drag you down professionally with house payment-like monthly payments.

Look at inexpensive community colleges with solid digital media programs. (Some two-year schools now offer four-year degrees.) And, yes, there are good film schools out there that aren’t over-the-moon expensive. If you picked up basic production skills in high school, there’s a good chance you can find an entry level production position as soon as the country is back up running again.  “Hire for attitude, train for skill” was an popular expression way back when I went to film school back in the ’80s—and probably long before that.

Which brings up some bonus advice from Rhimes that is helpful if you move to New York, L.A., Atlanta or stay right where you are and take a entry-level PA job:

“A thing that I think can be really helpful for people when they get a job, and people don’t seem to know this right now, and it’s feels very obvious. If you get a job in the industry making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile. The ones that seemed flat out pissed that they’re there, or frustrated, or lazy, or entitled, you want them to go away.  Because you think, man, they’re just sucking the air from the room. . . . People that have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’ or ‘What are you doing? What are you interested in?’ Those are the people that get noticed and get their scripts read, and get advice. And get a chance. Because you think, man, they’re working hard.”
—Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Do Grunt Work with a Smile

Writer/director Lulu Wang is the most recent filmmaker who did a version of what Rhimes talks about. She did not go to film school but did get her undergraduate degree. (I think she took one or two film/photography classes.) Then she moved to L.A. and did various film-related assistant jobs and wrote and produced her own stuff, networked, until she got the opportunity to make Farewell. Check out the post Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farewell.’

Before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote A Quiet Place they also decided to not got to film school since they’d been making films together since sixth grade. They did get communication degrees before moving to Los Angeles where they had a series of small successes before hitting it big. Read the post How Do You Break Into the Film Industry Without Any Connections to see their abridged version of how they did it.

And lastly, if you‘re into hacks and shortcuts, let me link to a post I wrote back in 2003 that’s one of my favorites on the subject—Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcut.’ 

P.S. For those of you graduating from high school or college in 2020, I know this is not how you envisioned the final months of school ideally ending.  But you’ll earn a layer of resilience that will serve you well throughout life. Go back and watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again with 2020 glasses. One of the main reasons that film is currently the #1 rated movie of all time on IMDB is that going through a lot of crap in life is a universal experience.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things.”
—Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
Written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King
(Darabont was born in a refugee camp, immigrated with his family to the U.S.,  and also did not go to college. He started his Hollywood career as a PA on low budget movies and writing on the side until he got good enough to be paid for doing it.)

Additional related posts (for those without wealthy parents) and a great ending quote from Amazon’s Ted Hope:
Is Film School Worth It?  A post I wrote as a response to The $330,000 Film School Debt.
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Scriptnotes Ep 422: ‘Assistants Aren‘t Paid Nearly Enough’

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Scott W. Smith 

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“Movies are about life-changing events in these character’s lives.”
Screenwriter John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 218

The 25 cent word of the day is synecdoche. Author/Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates uses the word synecdoche in her MasterClass talk as a literary device meaning “one stands for the whole” and states that “it is the principle of all art.”

One example she gives is her book Blonde: A Novel. While the real life Marilyn Monroe had several miscarriages and lived in multiple orphanages and foster homes, Oates chose to write about one miscarriage, one orphanage, and one foster home. Limiting selections gives your story power.

Oates says this principle works in journaling and other forms of writing.

“If some profound thing happens one day out of 25, that’s the day you write about. So too with a short story. Most of my short stories focus on people at climactic moments of their lives. Like it’s the one event in their whole lives that’s really momentous— that’s what I’m writing about. I’m not writing about anything else.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
MasterClass, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Message 2)

This principle works in screenwriting as well.

“If your movie isn’t about the most important moment in your hero’s life don’t write it.”
—Scriptshadow

Billy Ray used synecdoche in his screenplay Richard Jewell where he made a composite character named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). A singular FBI agent that stood for the many FBI agents on the case.

Aaron Sorkin used the technique when he limited his screenplay Steve Jobs to just three days —three acts—in the life the Apple co-founder. The 1984 Apple Macintosh launch, the 1988 launch of NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. The king on the throne, the king in exile, and the return of the king.

And when writer/director Lulu Wang chose to tell the story of a Chinese family in The Farewell, she chose the events surrounding her grandmother getting cancer and a lie.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“The task of the successful writer is to lower the bar. You want to avoid areas of high difficulty. So a high difficulty task is having your story in your head before you write it. That’s too hard to do! You got to be really smart to do that. I’m not smart enough, so why would I put myself in that position? Just start writing and then work it out. You can always rewrite it, you can change it. That’s the great luxury of being a writer. We’re not surgeons. The world does not hold us to our first pass.”
—Author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point)
MasterClass, “Drafts and Revisions”

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“I divide the world into two groups of people. There are those who pay someone to listen to their problems. And there are those who get paid for telling people their problems. I am very fortunate to be in group number two. . . . I can’t wait to hear everything that’s gone wrong in your life.”
David Sedaris
Masterclass, Conclusion: Two Groups of People

Humorist David Sedaris said that he knows there are better storytellers than him, better writers than him, and people who have better speaking voices than him him—but as of this post he’s written ten books that have sold 12 million copies and has made a career out of reading his stories in person and on the radio. (That reminds me of the motivational saying, “Never let what you can’t do prevent you from doing what you can do.”)

Here’s one of his secrets.

“I wrote every day for 15 years before my first book came out.”
David Sedaris

If you want an easier task to follow, read Ann Patchett’s essay The Getaway Car (found in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage) which Sedaris calls “the best essay I’ve ever read about writing” because it reminds him “of the joy of writing.”

“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”
Ann Patchett

P.S. Ann Patchett is a has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. All roads lead to Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Notice when you’re talking to people, notice what people laugh at. If you tell a story and somebody laughs, then they sort of ask you some follow-up questions, that’s a pretty good indication that that might be a good thing to write about. Carry a notebook— make note of those times. I do.”
Humorist David Sedaris
Masterclass, “Observing the World”

While I lived in Iowa I got to know former Saturday Night Live writer/cast member Gary Kroegerwho lives there now, and he said that comedian Rodney Dangerfield once told him that three funny things happen to everyone every day, he just writes them down.

Do the Dangerfield math there. If you write down 3 funny things every day for a year (365 days) you’ll have 1,095 funny bits. Even if only 10% have staying power you’ll have over 100 bits to develop further.

And if you want to see how a comedian crafts together five-minutes of original comedy material then check out the documentary Comedian (2002) with Jerry Seinfeld.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I know for myself, it’s important to write every single day. I meet a lot of young writers and I say do you write everyday, and they say, no, I write when it strikes me. I don’t know, I suppose that might work for some people—I’m not really the one to say—but it never would have worked for me. So much happens sitting at your desk when you don’t have an idea. So many things can happen, but they’re not going to happen unless you’re at your desk. So you need to sit there, and not have the internet, and see what happens. You just have to do the work. That means not going to the party. It means people are really going to think you’re a drag. . . . I’ve meet so many people who say I really want to write, but I work all day. So did I. You work all day and then you come home and write. If it means that much to you, you’re going to find the time to do it.”
Writer/speaker David Sedaris
Masterclass (Lesson 3), Turning Observations Into Stories

David Sedaris graduated from college in 1987 and worked various odd jobs (including cleaning houses) and wrote a lot until eventually Ira Glass called him one day asking him to read Santaland Diaries (an essay Sedaris wrote about being one of Santa’s helpers at Macy’s). Sedaris was 35-years-old when it aired on December 23 , 1992 on NPR’s Morning Edition.  That lead to an ongoing gig with This American Life, and eventually his books being published and paid speaking engagements.

Interesting things don’t happen “out there,” they happen right where you are in your day job. (All the better if it’s an odd, odd job—like being an elf.) Your job is to make observations with your special writer glasses and write them down in your diary. At least, that worked for Sedaris.

Related links:
David Sedaris, Ira Glass and 25 Years of “Santaland Diaries”

Scott W. Smith 

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This is a follow-up to my last post (The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words) and it’s advice that comes from three Oscar winners. And it has to do with how you as a director capture wide shots, medium shots, and close-up shots in any given scene.

Director Spike Lee says you not only want to hire a talented director of photography (DP), but one who is also efficient. That’s a big part of what is going to help you keep on schedule and make your days. And the lower the budget, the fewer days you have to shoot your film.

And it’s not only the shooting schedule that’s important. Lee says, “Actors come to the set ready to work.” They’ve already been through hair, makeup, and wardrobe so they don’t want to be sitting in their trailers while the DP tinkers with lighting.

Oscar winner Martin Scorsese said that back in the ’80s when he was coming off a lull in his career he had smaller budgets to work. In one case he needed 75 shots in three days, but the budget only allowed for two days so they cut out 25 shots and scheduled to shoot 25 shots per day over the two days they had. The way they kept on schedule was to allow x-amount of time for each shot—10 minutes for one shot, 20 minutes for another, and 45 minutes for a more complicated shot. If they didn’t get what they needed in that time frame, they had to move on.

Oscar winner Jodie Foster drives home the point of how to be efficient in your shooting:

“There are a lot of things that waste time on movies. For example, you have five setups, you have one incredibly wide shot, and the other ones are five little pieces you’re going in for. Your wide shot— you can barely see their mouths move. So please don’t do 25 takes of the entire scene and print them all, and give your actors notes based on this wide shot. You’re probably only going to need one take or maybe two takes. Go in and get the other stuff afterwards and don’t waste all of your time getting the wide shot perfectly. Allow yourself to go in for the other shots.

“With movement very often, when you start a move and you know you’re going to keep this move, you want the beginning of the move and the end of the move. And that means you’re going to be stuck on this shot for the whole thing. If you make that decision that you’re going to keep that shot, then you don’t need those lines for any of the other pieces of coverage. So you don’t need to get everything perfect if you know that you have the money shots or the shots that are really in your head are working. So that’s where a lot of time gets spent, people want everything perfect and they don’t have an understanding of their cutting patterns or their potential cutting pattern. And they heard that old adage ‘Get coverage, get everything. Get every choice you possible have.‘ Large films can afford to not make choices. A little movie—gotta make choices and keep moving on.”
Jodie Foster
Masterclass, Shooting Your Film

So don’t worry about getting every take perfect (it won’t happen anyway), and have a clear vision going into the scene of what you envision the final edited scene to be. Another trick Lee has used throughout his career is to do scenes in one take. Steven Spielberg is a master of the oner–some that are simple and some that are quite complex. (Shots that often involve wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups all in one long take.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.29.12 PM

Close-up on Opie (Ron Howard)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in Hollywood history. He’s been a  child actor in a classic Tv show (The Andy Griffith Show), a young star actor  (Happy Days), an indie filmmaker (Grand Theft Auto), an Emmy winning producer (From Earth to the Moon), and an Oscar winning producer/director (A Beautiful Mind). He also had the privilege of developing a personal relationship with producer/director George Lucas who directed him in American Graffiti and produced Willow which Howard directed.

So with Howard’s over 50+ solid years of film and television experience here’s a very simple piece of filmmaking advice that I’m calling “The George Lucas Directing Class in Under 100 Words (via Ron Howard).” It’s advice that Howard learned first hand from Lucas, and advice that has always stuck with him and that he shares with others as they set out to direct. Here are 91 words that can change your life:

“George Lucas said no well-written scene has ever gone bad because the director staged it and shot it with a wide shot, a medium, and two close ups. If the scene’s well-written, you can just always fall back on that formula and you’ll have the material you’ll need to go into the editing room. Now, if you have an idea or a visual notion that’s more sophisticated that involves camera moves so be it, but you’re not going to ruin the scene because you shot it in a very simple way.”
Ron Howard
Masterclass, Frost/Nixon Staging Review

I learned about wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups in film school and it was called sequencing. Basically getting the coverage you need in a scene that when you go into the edit room you have a variety of shots that allows you to control pacing, visual interest, performance, and dramatic presentation. Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

What constitutes a wide, medium, and a close-up is somewhat subject—and there are variations such as an extreme close-ups)  but this will get you in the ballpark.

MEDIUM CLOSE-UP
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.02.22 PM.png
CLOSE-UP (reversal shot of the medium closeup)
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.02.39 PM.png
MEDIUM TWO SHOT 
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.03.29 PM.png
WIDE SHOT
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.04.00 PM.png
MEDIUM SHOT 
Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 3.12.05 PM.png
EXTREME WIDE SHOT
screen-shot-2019-10-07-at-3.16.29-pm.png

EXTREME CLOSE-UP (A BEAUTIFUL MIND)
Screen Shot 2019-10-08 at 2.58.13 PM.png

 

Once you become aware of wide/medium/close-up shots you realize that the entire history of cinema is saturated with that basic “formula” to use Lucas’ word. Watch any film from the early silent era through to the most recent release and you’ll see wide, medium, and close-up shots over and over again.

Bigger budget films have tools at their disposal to make very complicated shots (dolly, crane, Steadicam, helicopter, etc) but it still boils down to wide/medium/close-up shots. Even films that where done in one take (Russian Ark) or meant to look like one take (Rope, Birdman) are still a variety of wide, medium, and close-ups.

Watch this evergreen advice played out from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show from the 1960s.

P.S. And wide/medium/close-up is scalable on every kind of production—from the largest blockbuster to the :15 second web spot.

 

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“A big theme for me is people in spiritual crisis. I keep coming back to this, every movie that I tend to be drawn to, that I want to spend years on, is about somebody going through a spiritual crisis. And this person—this man or this woman—is trying to make sense of their life because they’re trying to get better instead of worse . . . In many cases that is the whole object of the film. To take that person from a lost state, from a broken state, to a state where they can sudden start to repair themselves.”
Actor/director Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate)
Masterclass

Related post:
The Caterpillar and the Butterfly Every story is ‘The Caterpillar and the Butterfly.’”–Blake Snyder
Screenwriting & Slavery to Freedom “In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”—John Truby
‘Stories are about people who are messed up’ “Stories are about people who are messed up, and need to figure out a way through it.”—Judd Apatow

Scott W. Smith

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