GO TO SCHOOL!!!

Throughout my entire career, I’ve heard this familiar refrain: what’s the point in going to film school? After all, film school is expensive and why shouldn’t you just spend that money making a film and learning like that. Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of smart people saying that maybe that’s a good idea. I saw Ted Hope twitter this sentiment last week. It comes up in Lloyd Kaufman’s book, Produce Your Own Damn Movie, which is otherwise full of wisdom.

Look, film school has value, but even if it didn’t, living in America (living ANYWHERE!) without a college education is like living without legs.

Let’s be clear about this: if university is an option at all, you need to go. Lloyd Kaufman went to Yale. Ted Hope went to NYU. I don’t know what the fuck they are talking about when they say skip school.

Tarantino loves to go on about this shit, because he never went to film school and he’s so “filmy” that clearly working in a video store is somehow as valuable as a University education. Why wouldn’t he think that? He never went to university.

The cost of education can be pretty expensive. The value of education is impossible to measure.

If you are interested in film, go to film school. Film has a short, but rich, history. Film is an art as well as a craft. There is a lot to learn – believe me, I learned it! The time you spend among your peers discussing films and life will form your character. The people you meet will become lifelong friends and a lot of them will be running the film companies in ten or fifteen years.

I do not recommend going somewhere that is solely a film school, ie. a film school that is not attached to a university, unless you’ve already gone to a university. A filmmaker needs to know about everything, and there is no way you will learn anything with a broad education. If going to university taught me anything, it taught me how to learn, and how to educate myself. It taught me how to live in this society and have the confidence to do anything.

It’s hard to understand why an education is important when you don’t have one, so let me put it like this. Let’s say you had never tasted Chinese food, you would never know if it’s good or not. But then you tasted it, and you discovered that it is good. Your menu just opened up. Now you have another option in your life that’s been there all your life, but you didn’t know it was there. And it’s full of flavor and now there’s this whole menu and culture that you’ve just discovered and can explore. Or not. Maybe you hated it, but now that option is there.

That’s education. It’s there if you want it. Or just sit in your room and rent videos.

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Follow up on business talk that should be art talk

I was just reading about the next film by the guy who made Paranormal Activity in the NYT Arts Section.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/movies/27paranormal.html

Why is this article in the Arts section? As I was saying, there is nothing interesting to say about the film, so they talk about the business. But really, couldn’t they have found some small film somewhere to champion with their front page Arts article? This is how film criticism got killed in the first place, isn’t it?

The article itself is about how the producers can’t find a buyer for P.A. director’s next film. Could it be that this is just another story about studios tightening their wallets, or is it that the studios are seeing this for what it is: a box office fluke; and that they can’t get over the fact that this film was shot on a camcorder and looks like shit and the movie sucks, no matter what audiences say?

But really, who the fuck cares!!!

Is the reason they are talking about this because the movie is unworthy of discussion? Whatever happened to Art? Why couldn’t they have an article on the phenomena that this movie is: a piece of crap that audiences line up for? Or even, an appreciation of the artistry of the film, maybe done by someone who likes it and thinks that the critics are snobs. Anything but this!

Talk about something that’s not the business

Have you noticed that no one really talks about films anymore unless it’s in terms of box office, or distribution. When a new film comes out, they are so marketed that, if there is any actual discussion about the film, it’s almost like a talking point that been put out there by some smart marketing person. So you can go see Julie and Julia and come out saying, “it was ok, but wasn’t Meryl Streep just wonderful”. Or you can see Paranormal Activity in the theater because “the reason to see it is to share the collective experience” of a bunch of people in the theater screaming. Watch. When someone recommends a film to you, they’ll almost almost always pull one of those talking points out as if they just thought of it. It’s an amazing thing to see.

But they are just as likely to talk about Paranormal Activity’s path to the big screen, how it cost 20,000 dollars to make and Paramount spent nothing on marketing it. In fact, talking about whether the film is good or not is really besides the point. The biggest selling point you can make for a film is to flout its huge box office – the number one movie in the country is… (this week, Paranormal Activity.) And this success at the box office somehow translates to most people that it is a successful film.

I don’t have to see Paranormal Activity to know that, no matter how much money it makes, it sucks because no one – NO ONE – is talking about what a great movie it is, or getting excited about it, or anything. The best thing you could say about a movie like this is that you took your girlfriend, she got scared and you got to second base. There’s nothing wrong with a movie like that, but some of us want a little more.

I’ve been thinking lately that maybe the reason that there is so much talk about the business of movies, or the dying of the business, is that the movies themselves are so unexciting. I look back to the time of WILD BUNCH and BONNIE AND CLYDE. These films came out before my time, but I read a lot of criticism that came out around them when they were released. They were exciting films. They were violent, caught up in the violence that was happening in Vietnam. They were great, important films that demanded to be seen and discussed.

Where is that vitality in movies now?

I haven’t seen ANTICHRIST yet, but, although this is a film that’s meant to provoke and be discussed, it sounds like it’s not quite good enough to do that. It’s been marginalized as loopy because of some gory sex stuff which is also being put out there as part of the marketing campaign.

I keep hearing about all these great films that are coming out that aren’t getting distributed and I’m sure there are some great ones, but what film needs right now is a reason to exist beyond making money – not just for studio executives and filmmakers, but also for the audience.

Films can be amazing things, but somehow life has been drained out of them.

Film is art and art is important. That’s where the discussion should start. Who cares if the film business goes down in flames if its heart has already stopped beating?

What a film can be vs. the wall of stagnation

If you look at the great films of the past in their historical context, you can see pretty clearly that the filmmakers were reacting defiantly against what film was at that time, and wanted to show what a film could be, as they believed it could. In other words, they went to a lot of movies, were inspired by the potential of cinema but unsatisfied with some aspect of it, and they set out to change that.

Look at the French New Wave, sick of the glossy formalism and elitist bend of the studios at the time. Look at the British directors of the 70’s, like Mike Leigh, who wanted something more realistic, something more connected with his working class background, and just wasn’t seeing that in theaters. Look at Spike Lee, who saw Bill Cosby and thought that people might want to see a different kind of African American experience. Look at Bill Cosby, who saw that black people were completely ignored on television and knew that there was an audience for that.

All of these people saw potential, missed opportunities, different ways of doing things. Their films went out to prove their ideas right.

Mike Leigh didn’t just want a working class film. He wanted an entirely more realistic quality in cinema. He figured out a way to achieve that through a unique process of improvisation and theatrical scripting. And he did it.

Cassavetes looked at Hollywood and thought it was devoid of life and humanity. He set out, again with a unique process, to put it back in.

Every artistic choice in a film fights for its right to be there, but an artistic choice that is different the preconceived notions of things faces unusually strong opposition. It has to fight the system of how things were done before. There is the format of a script. There is the way things are financed and scheduled and budgeted. This is the status quo; the system fighting every choice at every step of the way.

This is when you get stories like Coppola facing executives at Paramount telling him that there is no fucking way they are going to let him cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather. This is why Kubrick created his own system, in London, away from Hollywood, where he could spend a year making his film for the same budget that most people got a few months out of.

It’s not just the system of filmmaking that a filmmaker has to fight, it’s also the audience. New ideas take getting used to. Most great films take a while to become great, and often don’t do too well when put out into the ether.

So from beginning to end, there is the fog of stagnation that an idea has to battle with. The only thing that can possible get that idea through is the simple belief that it is the right thing to do. It helps if you can articulate it and convince people or educate people to understand your idea, but what people respond to is your emotional need to put that idea out there because it is just obvious to you that needs to be put out there, and there is no reason not to put it out there. It just makes sense. Once it is in the world, it will be obvious to everyone else too.

My first reaction to everything is “no”, and I know I’m not alone. But after I’ve said “no”, then my mind starts to open and I can question why it is I said “no” and if there is no reason, then maybe I should have said “yes”. It’s human nature to be skeptical. A superficial idea will bounce off a “no” and that will be that. An interesting idea will reverberate around that “no” and win that skepticism over. In other words, a good idea is unstoppable.

I look around the state of movies today and I see nothing but possibility. Movies, or at least American movies, are in an awfully bad state artistically. But there is also a huge stagnation. The people who make films have it in their heads that what the people want right now is more of the same crap that’s been coming out, except with a schmaltzy sauce. The movies really need some good ideas right now.

How to write a character – Part 3

Before I try to describe the emotional life of the characters, we need to look at what we have again.  I’ll just post it again here to make it easy…

INT. PAULA’S HOUSE, KITCHEN – DAY

Nancy takes the glass of Prosecco that Paula just poured.

NANCY

This Prosecco tastes like shit.

She downs it one gulp and pours herself another, while Paula takes a Heinekin from the fridge for herself.

PAULA

My husband won’t spend more than 12 dollars on a bottle of wine.

PAULA

When was the last time you got laid?

NANCY

No comment.  What about you?

PAULA

Jack went down on me last night.  I was trying to erase it from my memory.  Don’t ask.

NANCY

I need a favor.  The alimony check from my asshole ex-husband bounced and I need to borrow ten thousand dollars.  Can you help me out?

PAULA

Wow.  It’s times like these when you find out who your friends are.  Or aren’t.

NANCY

You’re not going to help me?

PAULA

I can lend you twenty.  Dollars.

NANCY

Think of it as an investment.  I’ll pay you back double next week.

PAULA

I don’t have it.  Don’t you have a credit card?

NANCY

Maxed out.  I’m maxed out in every direction.  Charlie met some woman and he’s been stalling on the checks.  He knows I’m screwed.  I can’t even afford a lawyer.  The kids are going to kicked out of boarding school next month if I don’t cough up tuition.  I’m at the end of my rope.

PAULA

Sounds like you really have “problems”.

NANCY

I didn’t really expect the world from you, but I did think you would at least sympathize with my situation.

PAULA

To be honest, Nancy, there’s a recession on.  People are suffering.

NANCY

I know you always liked Charlie, but there were good reasons that we got divorced.

PAULA

It was terrible what you put your kids through.

NANCY

You really don’t know what you’re talking about.  You know what?  I’ll just borrow that twenty and I’ll be out of your way.

PAULA

Fine.

Paula looks in her wallet and sees that she doesn’t have it.

NANCY

You don’t even have twenty?

PAULA

Hold on.  I have it upstairs.

Paula goes upstairs.  She comes back a minute later holding a crisp twenty.

But she finds Nancy is gone.  She sees her purse on the table and looks in it.  Her credit card is gone.

EXT. HOUSE – DAY

She runs outside to see Nancy screeching away in her Mercedes.  She looks after her, puzzled.

Then she goes inside, grabs her keys, cell phone and purse.  She gets in her car and follows her.

***************

Nancy obviously needs some cash for whatever her plan is. “But”, says the Development Girl in your studio meeting, “Why does Paula follow her instead of just calling the police?”

Now, you can make something up and write it in, I don’t know, something like: Paula had a bad experience with the police and never calls them, no matter what.  (That sounds silly, but that’s what Hollywood scripts are full of.)

Or, you could embrace it the same way you embrace the idea of Nancy stealing the credit card.  I had no idea when I started writing that scene that Nancy would steal the credit card, and I can only guess at the reasons why because I don’t even have a fully flushed out story.  But suddenly, by doing this, she became something more than she was before she did it. Nancy stole the credit card, which, while something I don’t think she’s ever done before, is now part of her character.   And Paula, by following her, did too.

I want to focus on Paula because what she’s doing, while impulsive, is a little more difficult to understand.  Like I said, she doesn’t really have a motivation.  So let me be clear: she follows Nancy because that is her character.  It doesn’t matter why she does it; she does it because it is her character.  It will make sense when we see the entire script, because as we get to know her, we will learn that that is exactly how this character would react in that situation.

Like I said, I had no idea Nancy would take that credit card.  She did it because of something going on in her emotional life reacting to the current situation.  Sure, Nancy needs the money, but ignore that for a minute.  What is Nancy’s relationship with Paula?  Nancy went through a divorce and Paula thinks that Nancy did something wrong during the divorce.  This clearly hurts Nancy and Paula probably doesn’t feel so good about offering her opinion into personal matters that aren’t any of her business, but she can’t help herself.  That’s a quick analysis of what I already wrote, but what guided that writing was a sort of connection between me and the hearts of those characters.  Sure, Nancy’s problems seem pretty trivial in this age of recession, but not to her.  To her, there is nothing more important than the emotional turmoil that’s going on inside of her.  It’s important to her, it’s important to me and, I trust, it will be important to whoever sees this movie: even starving people in Africa will feel for her because, as humans, they understand those emotions like anyone else.

This is life.  Emotional life.  This is the human condition, the collective unconscious, this is what connects us all.  To me, as the writer, I suddenly have a need to tell this story because these emotional lives suddenly have importance to me.

Try reading the scene again, this time, line by line, just looking at the emotional lives of the characters.  How do they feel about each other, or themselves?  Nancy, at the end of her rope, desperately reaching out to someone who used to be her friend.  Paula, who wants to help, but can’t get over herself, can’t get over her stupid opinions or her cheap husband, or her small bank account, to be able to help.  So maybe by following Nancy, she plans on helping her.  Or maybe her life is in a rut and this is some sort of opportunity for her to spice things up.  But what is driving her, ultimately, is that she is a nice person who has some love and sympathy in her.  Who could argue with that (except a Development Person.)

How did all that stuff get in there?  I had no plan for it when I set out to do it.  I set the scene and then put the characters there.  I didn’t even know these characters before I started.  How did that emotional life find its way in there?

The answer is imagination.

It sounds simple, and, in a way, it is.  I was sitting here, at my computer, trying to figure out what to write, I thought about it and then I wrote it.  That’s the work.  Your imagination is your way into the life of the characters.

It’s difficult to explain exactly how this works, and it’s even more difficult to do.  As I said, it took me years of writing to tap into this stuff.  It gets more instinctive as you get better at it, so you can sort of think of many things at once, while trying to figure things out in a script.

Reading the scene, you probably didn’t see much of this without me pointing it out.  Hopefully, you read it and thought it was a decent scene with the promise of more to come.  I’m curious to find out what happens.  It obviously needs some work, but that’s fine.  This is a beginning. We’re going to have to rewrite it a hundred times.  I already know these characters better, and could write the scene better next time.  Maybe I’ll take the small talk out and file it.  Sure, Paula had a nice, funny line, but let’s be confident enough to know that we will be writing many excellent lines in the months to come.  That’s what this job is, after all.  As I get to know the characters, I’ll trust them to get me through the entire writing process in the same way that you’ll trust them enough to follow them through the story.

How to write a character – Part Two

So, before we put the story in, let’s look at what we have.   We’ll write a little “introduction” of the characters later, when we know them a little better.

INT. PAULA’S HOUSE, KITCHEN – DAY

Nancy takes the glass of Prosecco that Paula just poured.

NANCY

This Prosecco tastes like shit.

She downs it one gulp and pours herself another, while Paula takes a Heinekin from the fridge for herself.

PAULA

My husband won’t spend more than 12 dollars on a bottle of wine.

This is where I start to have a problem with “motivation”.  Nancy probably has a reason for coming over to Paula’s house, but Paula is just being polite.  To say she has a motivation in this scene doesn’t make sense.  You could make it up – and that’s what we’re doing here, making things up – but we don’t want it feel like it’s been made up.  We don’t want to force things too much, because that will make it seem false.  So don’t worry about “motivation” right now.

The other thing with “motivation” is that films aren’t always conducive to the script like that.  Films cheat.  Sometimes a character’s motivation comes from the fact that, I don’t know, time is running out and you need to get the shot.  What was Indy’s “motivation” when he took out his gun and shot the guy, instead of using his whip?  Well, Harrison Ford was sick that day and they were behind schedule, and that solved both problems.  Was that his motivation?  Was it that they got a laugh?  I mean, if you really look at it, his motivation changed from subduing the guy with his whip, as it was in the script, to killing a man in cold blood because he was too lazy to get his whip out.  But it worked.

OK, back to our girls.

Part of the fun of writing is that, generally, you are taking characters outside of their comfort zone, out of their routine. Physicists use three dimensional models to explain their ten dimensional worlds, so let’s keep it Hollywood here, because Hollywood writes in the most simplistic terms, it’s an easy way to explain things.

These women are suburban dwellers, and they are a little past their prime, so lets put them into a world where they need to use their hidden talents in ways that they’ve never had to before.  I’m talking, clearly, about the high-class world of business espionage.  This is going to get our girls into all sorts of tight clothes and force them to use their rudimentary French and “elevated” tastes to save their lives.

All I know now is all I’ve told you.  We have these two women and they are headed, vaguely, to some scene where they are in ballroom dresses, drinking champagne and seducing foreign executives.  Sounds fun, right?  We’re making this up as we go along, which means that, in a final script, most of this won’t even be there.  Don’t think about that or you’ll never get started.

PAULA

When was the last time you got laid?

NANCY

No comment.  What about you?

PAULA

Jack went down on me last night.  I was trying to erase it from my memory.  Don’t ask.

NANCY

I need a favor.  The alimony check from my asshole ex-husband bounced and I need to borrow ten thousand dollars.  Can you help me out?

PAULA

Wow.  It’s times like these when you find out who your friends are.  Or aren’t.

NANCY

You’re not going to help me?

PAULA

I can lend you twenty.  Dollars.

NANCY

Think of it as an investment.  I’ll pay you back double next week.

PAULA

I don’t have it.  Don’t you have a credit card?

NANCY

Maxed out.  I’m maxed out in every direction.  Charlie met some woman and he’s been stalling on the checks.  He knows I’m screwed.  I can’t even afford a lawyer.  The kids are going to kicked out of boarding school next month if I don’t cough up tuition.  I’m at the end of my rope.

PAULA

Sounds like you really have “problems”.

NANCY

I didn’t really expect the world from you, but I did think you would at least sympathize with my situation.

PAULA

To be honest, Nancy, there’s a recession on.  People are suffering.

NANCY

I know you always liked Charlie, but there were good reasons that we got divorced.

PAULA

It was terrible what you put your kids through.

NANCY

You really don’t know what you’re talking about.  You know what?  I’ll just borrow that twenty and I’ll be out of your way.

PAULA

Fine.

Paula looks in her wallet and sees that she doesn’t have it.

NANCY

You don’t even have twenty?

PAULA

Hold on.  I have it upstairs.

Paula goes upstairs.  She comes back a minute later holding a crisp twenty.

But she finds Nancy is gone.  She sees her purse on the table and looks in it.  Her credit card is gone.

EXT. HOUSE – DAY

She runs outside to see Nancy screeching away in her Mercedes.  She looks after her, puzzled.

Then she goes inside, grabs her keys, cell phone and purse.  She gets in her car and follows her.

OK, so that’s a rough scene.  It gives us something to work with.  You might ask, why doesn’t she cancel the credit card?  We’ll deal with stuff like that later.  Nancy could be either a crazy bitch or in a desperate bind.  There’s some back story here that would probably be better moving further back.  We’re still figuring things out here.  It’s got a little direction.  I’m starting to see a few scenes ahead now.  Obviously, if you were outlining this, you would already have a good idea of where you going, but I’m concentrating on character for this.

In part 3, we’ll look at the emotional life of these two women and how that fuels everything – the writing, the story, the characters, the audience – everything.

How to write a character – Part one

Unless you’re unnaturally talented, it takes a lot of writing crap before you figure out how to write characters, so nothing I write here will actually teach you this. But the road to learning anything is long, so this may be one tiny step along the way.

So, how to write a character. First, what is a character? A character is like a real person, but distilled, so they have opinions, loves, fantasies, habits, social class, manners, mannerisms, etc. They have a personality – my friend, Dan, would say that this makes them less realistic because most people don’t have personalities, but my feeling is that if they are worth making a movie about, they probably have a little personality.

Aside from being real people, they are also a sort of representation of aspects of human nature, which comes through as the reason you are writing this in the first place.

A character also needs something that I find a lot of screenwriters forget, which is charm and/or charisma. An actor can do a lot to bring up the charm level, but it helps when they’re not starting from scratch.

So a good character will effortlessly contain all of these things. It is effortless because they all sort of grow out of each other.

Now, that’s what a character is. But you can’t just describe the character, because this is movie you’re writing. Characters in films are defined by their actions and by what they say.   This is why they are distilled: because, and this is important, a character can only exist in the scenes that you have in your film. A character has a life outside of these scenes, and presumably before the movie started, but films exist in a certain time frame and your character will have to exist in within that time frame. A bad writer will reference the time outside of the film. A good writer doesn’t have to, and you’ll still know exactly what that reference is.

OK. So, let’s create a character. Here’s a line:

NANCY
This Prosecco isn’t that good.

Not a bad line, but what do we learn about this character? She likes Prosecco (which is Italian Champagne), and she’s probably had it before, so she comes from maybe an upper middle class background. She’s probably been to University, travelled to Europe. She knows enough about Prosecco to have an opinion about it, or maybe she’s just bold enough to have an opinion. But it’s not a very nice thing to say when someone offers you a glass of Prosecco, so maybe she’s kind of a bitch. Another little thing about characters, and good actors will always think about this, is that they are always coming into a scene from somewhere else. So maybe Nancy just had a shitty day and she’s unloading on her friend.

Now don’t confuse where a character is coming from with a character’s “motivation”, which is a term I find is abused like corn syrup in the food industry.  There are writers who feel that characters in every scene have to want something, after all, Indy wanted the Lost Ark.  I find this a silly premise because, as often as not, characters, like people, don’t really know what they want or why they are in a certain place.

But that line is a little dry. So let’s spruce it up a little. Give it some personality.

NANCY
This Prosecco tastes cheap.

or

This Prosecco tastes like shit.

or

This Prosecco tastes like someone poured it over my ex-husband’s hairy back.

See how any of those gives you certain kind of character?

Now, what does she do with her glass of Prosecco? Does she pour it out? Spit it out? Drink it down because she likes to drink? Drink it because she doesn’t really care what it tastes like? Throw it in her host’s face? It depends what you want to do.

So, lets just say she drinks it and asks for another glass. I mean, do we really want to get into a fight about the wine?

PAULA
My husband won’t spend more than 12 dollars
on a bottle of wine.

Your opinion of Paula’s husband probably depends on how much you think a good bottle of wine is worth, but he’s probably a bit of a social climber.   Paula knows better than to drink the swill her husband brings home, because she’s having a beer. Paula feels a little more down to earth to me. It’s not really the beer, it’s her sort of fatalistic acceptance of her situation. Her husband is cheap, but she lives around that. Nancy is probably a little snobby and intolerant and maybe that’s why she has an EX-husband instead of a husband.

Now I don’t know if I’d want to spend a whole movie with these two 30-something women unless at least one of them started having sex, but that depends on where they’re going and what they’re going to talk about. They’re not particularly deep characters right now, but already I’m getting a sense of who they are.

The choices they make in the rest of the scenes will make that character deeper and more complete – but it’s really that, like a person, the more time you spend with them, the more you get to know them. It’s another reason why they have to be someone you want to get to know.  So let’s make them fun to be around with a little small talk.

PAULA

When was the last time you got laid?

NANCY

No comment.  What about you?

PAULA

Jack went down on me last night.  I was trying to erase it from my memory.  Don’t ask.

I think we know an awful lot about these characters already, more than anyone you would spent this amount of time with, because, as I said, we are writing in a distilled universe – we don’t have a lot of time here.  And they’re kind of fun and honest, self-deprecating, qualities I generally find appealing in people I meet.  Women are always a little more accessible than men.

In PART TWO,  we’ll put some some story in, and see  how these women react.   I have to figure out a better way to write dialog in this blog box.

Other people’s scripts

I generally like reading other people’s scripts, if only to get an idea about what other people think a script should be. I’m not talking about amateurs here, just other professionals; people who have agents or sell things.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s almost all crap! I used to read scripts when I lived in Hollywood and they were all terrible. There were a few that were good that had already been bought by the company I was working for, but the ones I was given were all of them, 100%, awful. I began to get desperate for anything in a script to be good, so I could pass something positive up to my boss, but it was always a stretch.

Look at it like this: most movies are awful, so it makes sense that most scripts are bad. It’s not too often, though it does happen, that a good script is fucked up by a bad director.

There are a few things that really bother me about other people’s scripts that could just be changed with the slightest effort.   I’m not talking about the tough parts.  Writing characters is hard, or it takes experience and/or talent. Writing a scene, with a beginning, middle and end, isn’t always an easy thing to do.   People who throw around terms like “exposition” and “character arc” generally have no idea what they are talking about.

But what I’m talking about here are basic principles of grammar. This is NOT difficult to master, or, at least, you should have mastered it in high school.  How hard is it to write with complete sentences?  Remember that old rule, that a sentence has a noun and a predicate?  A script is just a means of communicating, so why not take advantage of the techniques that have been established over centuries to make that communication flow as easily and as clearly as possible.

So this:

INT. HOUSE – DAY

Suburbia.  Furniture.  A man on the floor.  Blood.  Next to him, a knife.

Becomes this:

INT. HOUSE – DAY

A man lies on the floor of a furnished suburban house, covered in blood.  A knife lies next to him.

You might think that the first one sets some sort of tone, and it works just fine for that one sentence, but try reading a whole script like that.  It becomes monotonous and painful.

The other thing that drives me crazy is the use of the word “beat”.  If you really need a beat in your dialog, break it up with a little description.  It’s not that hard.

INT. HOUSE – DAY

JAKE

There sure is a lot of blood in here.

Beat.

JAKE

And some of it looks like his.

Becomes this….

INT. HOUSE – DAY

JAKE

There sure is a lot of blood in here.

Jake kneels down, looks closely, then turns back to his partner.

JAKE

And some of it looks like his.

“Beat” means nothing.

I could go on and on.  Maybe I’ll put a few more on here sometime, but I’ve got to get back to work.

Whatever happened to the jump cut?

I learned way back in film school about the jump cut. As presented by the illustrious film teacher, Brian Winston, Godard put the first jump cuts into film, creating a new kind of grammar for the language of film. When Jean Seberg comes up the escalator, a new way of using film was created.

So what happened to the jump cut? You never see it anymore. It’s relegated to the audition scene – a mind-numbingly unimaginative way to the jump cut.

The last time I remember seeing it was in Boys Don’t Cry, when the main guy took off his shirt. It really made the scene take off. But that was a while ago.  Wes Anderson, who is nothing if not a director who loves technique, has his own take on the jump cut, which is usually bridged with some dialog.  But that’s kind of a backwards take on it, because, while it moves the action forward, the “jump” is sort of smoothed out, because Wes Anderson likes his movies to be spotlessly beautiful, and they are, but his jump cuts also lack that urgency that makes them so powerful.  Jump cuts can give us the feeling that we’re suddenly moving a little faster than we thought, that our destination could show up at anytime, that anything can happen at any time, because we’re not a slave to that conventional editing style.

The films of the 70’s had it all over the place, as the great American directors of the time were stealing all sorts of stuff from the French New Wave. But then (the 80’s came) it stopped.  In fact, all the great stuff, all the innovations of the French New Wave were brought into the American mainstream in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Annie Hall, and then it all vanished.  That’s what’s amazing: it wasn’t just art films that used this stuff, it was Hollywood.  And now it’s like it was never there.

It’s as if physicists had discovered relativity, and then forgotten it.

I guess it’s closest evolutionary cousin might be found in the “handheld” look that I’m always bitching about.  Then you’re “allowed” to use a jump cut because the whole thing is supposed to look like a piece of shit, and somehow that’s supposed to make it more realistic.

What happened?  Did everybody just get stupider?  Doesn’t anybody remember that there are all these interesting techniques at their disposal?  How could action movies have passed up jump cuts?  Why not try a few of them out?  Get some jump cuts in your film.  Let a character walk out of frame once in a while.  Hold on a character who’s not talking for a scene.

I’ve been storyboarding a film, and while I’m still figuring things out, there’s one thing I’m sure of: there will be jump cuts in it.

What went wrong in the 80’s?

I was watching Light Sleeper last night. I forgot that in the 80’s being a coke dealer was actually considered a pretty cool job. Part of me wishes that staying up all night, doing lines off the breasts of a couple of hot chicks was how I spent the 80’s but then you see the hair cuts on those chicks and you’re like, man, maybe doing cocaine isn’t such a good idea.  Doing lines off the breast of hot chicks was THE golden standard of success in the 80’s.  Watch a bunch of 80’s films and you’ll see it again and again.  Do that, and you’ve made it!  You’re a success!  (Death is surely just around the corner.)

If you grew up in the 80’s, chances are that you know it sucked. We knew it even as it was happening. The 70’s was cool. The 80’s was pretending to be cool.  I’m not saying we had a lousy time, but even as we were partying, we could tell we were living through a cultural dead zone.

We got shitty everything. Shitty music, shitty movies, shitty art, shitty food, shitty buildings, shitty haircuts (esp. shitty haircuts), shitty clothes, shitty presidents: it was one big shit fest. But the worst part about it was that, at the time, we thought some of it was pretty cool.  We loved watching movies like Light Sleeper, with the synth soundtrack and the songs that gave it that music video quality that we couldn’t get enough of.  Try watching a film like Fatal Attraction today.  Putting aside the awful haircuts and clothes, it goes along in a typical Hollywood way – but wait til you get to the sex scene.  Glenn Close and Michael Douglas stop the elevator in her cool, Meat Packing District loft.  They go into silhouette, synth music bumps up, and suddenly they’re flying all over the elevator.  It’s fucking hilarious!  And what’s even funnier is that we thought that was cool at the time.  Ugh.

I know young people today have found some cool relics from the 80’s, but I can’t help thinking it’s some kind of joke for them.  For them, it’s kitsch.  We had no choice.  At least they only get the stuff that’s lasted.  We had to put up with a cloud of crap.  Maybe that’s the same for every generation.

Light Sleeper is not a bad movie, but it is such a product of it’s time.  Not just the pager that Dafoe uses and the typically strange 80’s sex scene between him and Dana Delaney, with a typically awful haircut, or the weird expressionist shots.  The whole story reeks of the 80’s.  Dafoe is a drug dealer whose moral compass is on the fritz while he tries to figure out what he’s going to do next.  It sounds deep, and it’s trying to be deep, but it’s really not deep at all.  It’s like the 80’s, it’s all a put on.  By the way, Dafoe is great.