04 August 2010

Your first film doesn't have to suck

Back a couple of years ago, when I was trying to put together my first feature film, I spent a long time--several years--working on an adaptation of a book of poetry called coffee stains. It was a book written in one day by my college roommate that was sort of, kind of about the joys of all-night diners, the zen of staying up all night, of letting inaction dictate your life.

It's a serene little book and I really liked the idea of turning it into a film. So I pulled it apart, each draft burrowing deeper and deeper into the poems until they were almost impossible to recognize. In the end it was really a script based on a script based on a script, based on a book of poetry.

And it's not a bad script. It's probably better than, say, 70% of the indie films out there. A couple of very smart people said that, yes, I should start on pre-production. But one person said I shouldn't. It was a difficult thing to hear, but he was right. I shelved the script, and it was one of the smarter things I've done in my career.

The gist of his argument was this: The script probably needs another draft, but even with that, you can't do this as a first feature. It's, best-case scenario, a third feature.

And he's absolutely right. I see why now.

You see, the story was essentially about this cinephile who's in a long-term relationship with this girl, but he refuses to move past a certain point in the relationship because he has this obsession with Bergman films and this idea that all relationships are ultimately doomed. So, his inaction ends up dooming the relationship, his friends move on, and he's left alone, insulated in his little world of cinema.

But his point was: too many first-time filmmakers make films that are either about themselves or movies or something like that and the film suffers for it. Even if it doesn't, people's eyes start to gloss over because there's just so damned many of them. People are sick of them.

And of course they are. Once you realize that, you start to see it everywhere. Debut feature about a writer/film student/filmmaker/artist who has boy/girl problems and blah blah blah, no one cares.

But it's an easy trap to fall into.

I don't claim to know everything, but here's some things I've learned the hard way:

1. No artists

None. I don't want to see the following thing in your film: a filmmaker, painter, photographer, writer, dancer, installation artist, poet, or any other kind of artist you can think of. They aren't nearly as interesting as you think they are, and outside a circle of artists, they're pretty boring and self-indulgent.

2. Don't write what you know

I don't give a shit about your life story. Honest. No one else does either.

Writing teachers always say write what you know, and I'm not entirely sure why, but I think, on some level, it's lazy teaching. At very least it's lazy writing. Try this instead: write what someone else knows. Come up with a character that you find interesting, that's not you, that's nothing like you, and figure them out. Do your research. Find out what makes them tick, what motivates them, what their struggles are. Interview people. Read textbooks and case studies and boring as hell medical data. You're a writer, aren't you? There's more to it than just sitting at Starbucks and scribbling in a notebook.

I wrote a film about a pregnant woman. Guess how much I knew about pregnant women when I started. Zero. But I did the leg work and I started to see myself in the character, and so, in a way, I started writing about myself. But, it was so buried by everything else that you could barely tell.

3. "Based on a true story"


Don't even think about it.

4. Get a DP

I don't care if you are a DP. Get someone else. You have enough to worry about. Trust your DP to add a dimension, a voice, to your film. And for the love of God, get a tripod.

5. You are not an actor

Just like the DP, even if you are an actor, take a film off.

6. Your images are important

I was watching a film the other day by a first-time filmmaker. There was no credited DP (uh oh), but 3 credited camera operators. Here's the text messages I was sending:

Me: Some really interesting images, but I don't think it's on purpose. Weird.

Me: Like the meaning in the use of shadow, framing, doesn't match the content.

Friend: Ouch

I don't care if you're making a mumblecore epic. Your images are important. They have just as much meaning as everything else. Pay attention. When an actor's eyes are in a shadow, that's important. Really important. Even if you're just running around with a Flip Camera.

7. Your words aren't important

You know that really clever turn of a phrase in your script that you're so proud of? It's going to derail your entire film.

Here's what's going to happen: You've fallen in love with it. And why not? It's like the love child of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. It's destined for t-shirts and coffee cups and cubicle walls the world over. But at some point, that line isn't going to mesh so well with the scene around it. And so you'll tweak and tweak and tweak and destroy an entire scene just to save that line. And then the house of cards will come toppling down.

There's a saying: Your film isn't done until you've cut your favorite scene.

It's true.

You aren't David Mamet. Your words aren't that clever. Toss them. Toss all of them if you have to. You might find that your actors get a lot better if they aren't trying to repeat something verbatim.

There's a Clint Eastwood story where he was working on a film and the writer noticed that he had crossed out almost all of his character's dialogue. The writer, understandably, was a little concerned and asked if anything was wrong. Clint said, no, the dialogue was great. But now he knew what his character was thinking, so he didn't need to say it.

8. Earn the right to disregard the above

There will be a point in your career where you'll realize the value in some of these rules. For me, it was probably earlier this year. Once you've gotten there, feel free to disregard them. But chances are, you won't. And if you do, the end result will be vastly different than if you had ignored them from the beginning.

That point won't come until after you've proven you can make a good film without falling into any of those traps. But it'll come. And your work will be better for it.


Anonymous said...

Granted, there are a ton of bad films out there that abuse these "rules" but I believe that if you applied them to the Best First Independent Writer/Director films of the last 30 years (Eraserhead, Sex, Lies & Videotape, Stranger Than Paradise, Slingblade, Brothers McMullen, Reservoir Dogs, et al) you would eliminate every single film on the list.

lucas mcnelly said...

I don't think you'd eliminate any of them. Maybe The Brother McMullen.

Awesumbroth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

This is idiotic. The only way someone is going to get better at making films is by making them. You yourself wrote a film that broke all these rules before you learned realized these things can be problematic, and the same applies to everyone else. Once someone has made something and failed they'll reflect back on it and actually learn something, just like you did.

I don't think I'd be so annoyed with the whole thing if you didn't maintain this utterly cynical tone. I'm sorry, but If you're going to claim modesty, don't begin the thing by saying the script you threw out was better than 70% of indie films.

By the way, the saying "your film isn't done until you've cut your favorite scene" is intended to be a joke referencing a producer's frequent final cut authority, and certainly isn't the kind of advice that should be taken to heart. Yes, we're not all David Mamet, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be clever.

lucas mcnelly said...

1. A lot of indie script are unreadable. Being in the 70th percentile isn't amazing.

2. There's some value in learning from other people's mistakes. No reason anyone else has to make them too.

3. If you think it's idiotic, fine. A year or two ago I probably would have agreed with you.

4. It's a blog post, not a dissertation for a PhD. Lighten up.

Mike said...

1. Yes, that's true, but most of those scripts are never turned into films, and if so they never really get much further than youtube - but frankly I'm not entirely sure these constitute the title of "indie films" so much as home videos. But I concede that if we include these into the "indie film" category, then you are absolutely correct.

2. I agree that there can be value in learning from the mistakes of others, but saying that your mistakes apply to everyone is unfair. There have been all sorts of young people who have written about what they know and done it very well; the key is to write about something you're passionate about. Better to make a mediocre film about an artist than another cliche struggling marriage / mafia film.

3. see #2

4. I apologize if my tone offended you.

/britmic said...

Great post. And I say that has someone who set off all the traps in 2004 with my feature "Crooked Features" - and, indeed, much of the feedback I got back from that was that it was full of in-jokes that nobody understood.

In some ways it's inevitable though. Until you have a team around you who can help you take risks (and a writer who can emotionally detach from the finished script), it's easier to make a movie about what you know.

Make mistakes. Realise. Recover quickly.

Steven Boone said...

I think this is great advice for somebody who's staking out a sensible career plan but not for somebody who just wants to create, strive, experiment, fail, repeat. (Granted, there are probably fewer of the latter than ever nowadays.)

I never took any classes to learn how to write film criticism, just watched a shitload of films and lived life. Turned out pretty good, imho. I suspect making a lot of films at low or no cost and living life will have a similar effect on whatever filmmaking talent I have.

There's so much fear and self-censure and industry-aping among indie filmmakers, even at the YouTube level. Meanwhile, those deep in the industry boldly step out with Cats and Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore.


Steven Boone said...

#'s 6 and 7 are gold, though.

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