The Left-Handed Monkey Wrench

LH_Monkey_WrenchBack when I was a rookie, I was asked to chase down a left-handed monkey wrench. The AD said it was critical for the next scene and I had to find one at all cost. He was adamant about it and made it clear that he trusted me to get the job done. He told me not to bother coming back if I couldn’t get one into the hands of the Gaffer within the hour.

I hustled toward the car with several perplexing thoughts. My dad was left-handed and he never used a left-handed wrench of any kind. In fact, every wrench he owned could be used in either hand. I became suspicious in that moment and wondered if I was being targeted with a test.

Taking a left before I got to the parking lot, I snuck around to the generator and asked the Best Boy if he had ever heard about a left-handed monkey wrench. He chuckled and asked if I had overheard someone being initiated. I told him a couple people were talking about it and I knew no such tool existed, but I wanted to make sure. He said, “It’s an initiation, which means we’ll have a light day. If I were you, I’d change departments for the rest of the day and find someone to serve.”

I headed over to the props truck and told them that I heard they needed help. “Yes,” shouted the Property Master. “Today’s a light day, which will allow us to catch up and organize the truck for the next few heavy days we’re about to hit.” I dove in and worked hard.

Later that afternoon I bumped into the AD. He switched his smile to a firm, piercing look. “I told you not to come back unless you found a left-handed monkey wrench.”

“On my way to the parking lot I bumped into the Property Master. She was struggling to organize the truck for fear of not keeping up with weekly schedule. Knowing that your success is critical to this picture, I volunteered to help make sure the props department would meet with your requirements. I knew your success was more important than finding a left-handed monkey wrench, especially since our Gaffer is capable of getting the job done with just about any wrench.”

The AD smiled at me and nodded his approval. “I’ll see you back on my team tomorrow,” he shouted as he strolled away.

My initiation was over and I wouldn’t be tested for the remainder of the picture. Unfortunately several people walked off of the film because they feared being controlled like a child controls a toy or plaything. They didn’t understand the difference between a one time test to see what a person is made of versus a controlling personality that continually chokes life out of a project.

Since most people’s next meal ticket is based on the strength of their last picture, it’s important for all members of the production team to develop good boundaries so they do not succumb to a real controller. Unfortunately the person with the control problem is sometimes a department head, an investor-producer that doesn’t understand the filmmaking process, or worse yet, a rookie director who never learned how the creative process works.

What Real Controllers Want

The controller wants what you have because he or she lacks those valuable qualities. The most sought after quality is being able to feel good about yourself without having to receive a pat on the back from someone else. Controllers also hunt down those who are secure in their skin, accomplishments, and overall position in life.

And, if your attention makes others feel good, the controller will be all over you. In fact, if you can feel good about other people and aren’t intimidated by their successes, you’ll have a control target placed on your back.

Controllers find it easier to put others down in order to feel good about who they are. The higher the position held by a controller, the more likely he or she will carry fear, having been promoted to the level of incompetence or the unknown.

The only way to alleviate a disaster during a film production is to set healthy boundaries and use the established hierarchy protocols that allow all departments to function properly.

What Not To Sacrifice

All too often we let go of things that are important to us in order to survive the constant attacks from a controller. This forces us out of the life we were meant to lead and we slowly become something that no longer looks like us. It therefore becomes critical that we set healthy boundaries to protect our hearts and our future. And yes, that might require you walking away from or avoiding certain people while on set.

Some elements worth protecting include the understanding that your ideas and contributions matter. Another consideration to keep yourself strong is to stop others from pushing your buttons, belittling your accomplishments, or talking down to you. But most importantly it’s prudent to make sure you never become a doormat by allowing others to push your needs below theirs.

Oh, it’s okay for you to choose to put others above yourself, but it’s not okay to allow others to force you down to make sure their needs are met. Choosing to serve others from your heart works very differently than having someone guilt you or coerce you into meeting their needs.

The controller must not be allowed to manipulate you and put your career at stake. You must fight to maintain who you are regardless of what they do. It’s not easy, especially when the controller gets others to “help” prepare you for your next level. Those well-meaning people buy into the controller’s manipulation and do his or her dirty work to take you down a few notches in the name of preparing or strengthening you.

Unfortunately you might have to walk away from the well-meaning people to protect your heart and career. Once they realize that their help actually hindered or hurt you, they will try to appeal to your good graces, but it might not be prudent to allow them back into your life—a difficult decision that only you can make.

The next time someone asks you for help that pulls you from your path in life, make a mental note that they might be a controller or a controller’s enabler. Set your boundaries and make sure your valuable, creative assets are well protected. Then get on being the best you that you can be, while having a lot of fun in life.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

 

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Facing the Light

Sunset

The man’s eyes struggled to focus. He cocked his head to compensate for his blurred, bottle induced vision. His breath reeked of whiskey and his slurred speech revealed that his alcohol levels were near toxic. The security officer slowly finagled the man’s car keys from his clenched hand.

The drunk relinquished the keys with little effort when he noticed the boss’s wife. He was on a mission and became a prowling tiger. He stepped behind the table, inside of the festival booth, and opened his arms to welcome Jennifer with a hug. His stubbled face slipped to her side, as he planted a moist, dripping kiss on her neck.

He held the hug long enough for Jennifer to push back, turning her head away from the fumes escaping his mouth. Her eyes filled with fear and gave me a look, a visual cue for help. My hand clenched into a fist and I stepped toward the man who hovered a good four inches above me.

“Derrick,” Jennifer said with a mix of slurred words. “You remember my close friend of the family, Carl.”

Carl closed his eyes, lightly shook his head, and turned toward me. His eyelids opened revealing his veiny eyes, half glossed over. “Good to see you again, Derrick.”
He extended his hand.

I glanced at Jennifer who leaned into her friend and wrapped her arms around his lanky, yet oversized bicep. They looked like lovers who had just finished a quarl and were considering if there was time for make-up sex.

I cringed at the thought and reached my hand forward to shake his. The squeeze around my hand suggested he had turned wrenches thousands of times before his retirement. His arm slipped around Jennifer and she leaned into his chest. Their eyes revealed matching desires to get a room, while mine closed in disgust.

The moment of chivalrous thought quickly turned to sorrow as I considered that the boss had been cheated on by his friend and wife. My demeanor shifted with a repugnant taste creeping into my soul from the experience. I looked above for hope and saw a setting sun tossing out beautiful orange and purple colors.

Turning back to preparing the booth for the eminent crowd, I scanned my memory for anything that might be of cheer. Helen Keller’s noted words rose to the forefront of my thoughts. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadows.” The simple words brought a sense of hope back into my life.

Her phrase was naturally accurate and held a spiritual truth worth remembering. I needed to keep my focus on the good in life and live as an example for anyone in need of hope. My choice to follow the light might even draw others into a warmth worth embracing. A smile stretched across my face as the festival guests entered the park.

I noticed the security officer walking Carl toward the medical tent, as Jennifer stepped next to me. “You know, I hate having to pretend I’m something that I’m not around him,” she said. “I hate having to pretend we’re close because he’s my husband’s friend.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you need to pretend at all?”

“Listen, you don’t know what it’s like living with my husband,” she said. “I’d be punished for days if I snubbed one of his friends.”

“I’m sorry you have to indulge in his antics to keep your relationship at home intact.”

“Thank you. You’re the first person who understands.” Jennifer turned and set up the brochures.

The topic was finally over, but I was trapped in my head wondering what it was that I supposedly understood. I shook it off, turned toward the sunset and pondered how the difficulties of life’s shadows disappear when we look to the light.

It was going to be a good evening.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

Beirut — Review

BER_156_M2_0V3_1_rgb“Thinking films” are far and few between, mostly because a small percentage of people take in a movie to be mentally challenged. However, those who kept their mind active during Dunkirk were well rewarded. And, with a bit less effort, many enjoyed Gary Oldman’s brilliant Oscar winning performance in The Darkest Hour.

The next installment of thinking films has arrived for this weekend in the movie Beirut. It’s a fascinating historical picture about several different countries and factions leveraging people and circumstances. They all share common goals of leaning the outcome of the war in their favor, not for justice or humanitarian ideals, but for selfish reasons that include revenge and the control of power.

The simple event is so entangled in the quagmire of jargon and hard-to-follow gibberish that the story seems far more complex than it is. If you’re able to follow the key plot points, you’ll realize that there wasn’t much of a story worth telling. On the other hand, if you were not able to sort through the bad accents and the dingy sets that all looked alike, the picture would seem far more complex.

The compelling situations that brought shock and awe to the American public during the Reagan years were not well captured in the film. The political intrigue was also left out, with the exception of a couple of interesting scenes suggesting how allies might have taken advantage of each other for their own gain.

But the interesting chess-like battle for information between the Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans was not handled well. Nor did the film reference or make use of additional political intrigue surrounding the multinational troops from France and Italy.

beirut_02415_r_rgb.jpgThe story focuses on a former U.S. diplomat (Jon Hamm of Mad Men and Baby Driver) being sucked in by CIA operatives (Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl and Hostiles, and Dean Norris of Breaking Bad and Under the Dome) to return to Beirut and negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind.

The quasi-historical story was written by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton). “At the time, Beirut was a hot topic because Tom Friedman’s book From Beirut to Jerusalem had just come out,” said Gilroy. “We wanted to put a negotiator in a historical setting where it could feel true to life without actually being a true story.”

Most of Gilroy’s fictional script was built around the 1984 kidnapping of CIA Station Chief William Buckley. “For me, that was very much the model for what would happen if a high-level CIA officer were kidnapped,” Gilroy said. “Buckley’s body actually turned up just as I was finishing the script, and there was a lot of reporting about that case that I drew on. It was all very garish and gothic and horrifying and dramatic.”

Unfortunately, Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) didn’t understand the realities of the horrifying, dramatic historical events, and it shows. “I was very taken by the world of Tony’s story. I frankly didn’t know very much about Beirut, so for me it was more the character elements that drew me in,” Anderson said. “I was fascinated with Mason (Jon Hamm) as this tortured soul who’s trying to redeem himself by saving his friend.”

beirut_03881_r_crop_rgb.jpgNot all veteran indie film writer-directors are able to express reality-based stories in a way that helps the audience experience or relive the historical moments. Anderson failed miserably at visualizing Gilroy’s fictional account, boring the veteran sitting one row in front of me. He actually pulled out his cell phone and engaged in 5-10 minutes of texting.

As for being spellbound by the characters that Anderson suggested drove the film, I found Hamm’s character to be flat and one dimensional. While Pike gave a great performance, her character was also limited, mostly by too little screen time.

For those who love political intrigue and deep thinking films, this one is a pass in my book. Even with thin character development, Hamm and Pike fans will not be disappointed in their performances, but they’ll have to keep in mind that the script and director tied their hands.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ powers

 

Launching a Story With an Inciting Incident

Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.

princessholo-e1523289223415.jpeg
The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.

A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”

The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.

The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.

Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.

The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.

The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Finding Your Voice

After spending a few minutes with me you’ll find that I tell a lot of stories. I come by it naturally, as my dad told stories every night at the dinner table. His daily adventures as a cop were thrilling, hilarious, or absurd. And yes, he did get shot in the line of duty and lived to tell the incredible story.

Even in his death, dying in a mysterious plane crash during a freak storm, he guided me with clues into a life of storytelling. I found myself hunting down every unanswered and mysterious story behind his death. My curiosity grew, as I delved deeper into the 100 out-of-place coincidences that I discovered.

5357__ROlJiMzo6Later in life I’d hear Hannah Brencher share about how our voice, as a writer or filmmaker, is birthed in our experiences and emotions. Brencher said, “Live and then write it down.” It’s such a simple activity that develops our voice, yet it’s all too often overlooked.

The process solidifies our experiential and emotional patterns rising from our soul to our consciousness—the very thing that determines our life passions. Once we see these patterns outside of ourselves, our minds are capable of standing firm in our beliefs and perspectives. The repetitive nature of the process also strengthens our resolve and gives us the tools to help others.

But our value is of little worth to those we inspire, unless it’s coupled with the elements that can seed their life for great results. To bring a sense of fulfillment to our followers, we must find a way to teach, rather than just inspire them. We must transcend the typical story by salting in life elements that can be embraced by those we serve with our words and films.

Brencher shared how she went camping with no more than the idea of camping on her mind. She wasn’t prepared, and had no idea how to build a campfire useful for warmth and cooking. Thankfully a guy one site over lended a hand and built her campfire. He also replenished it later that evening and fueled it again to cook breakfast.

That afternoon he broke camp to continue his travels. She too left, even though she paid for two nights, because she still didn’t know how to make a fire. In that moment she realized that inspiring people is nice, but teaching them how to inspire themselves is better. The experience raised a new passion in her that would permanently alter her voice. She learned that as a writer she needed to give everything she had, not just the inspirational pieces.

Give everything you have “in the moment you are asked to give it all,” became Brencher’s new moto. It’s a moto for those with little to share and those with a lot. The size and strength of our voice is not what’s important, but the value we bring to others.

Brencher’s voice was uniquely hers and couldn’t be copied by anyone else, except through plagiarism. No one is able to create a similar voice that can stand the test of time. It’s only when we dig deep within our personal experiences and emotions will our voice rise and be like none other.

Spending a couple decades listening to my dad share true-life stories, coupled with a rise in my curiosity from the 100 bizarre coincidences associated with his death, sent me on a journey of countless experiences and emotions that forged my voice…. A voice that was like none other. A voice that hopefully inspires and teaches.

Maybe it’s time for you to consider journaling to bring your needed voice to the forefront.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

When Your Muse is Missing

doubleyolkThis morning I cracked open a couple of eggs for an omelet and was delighted to find that one of my eggs had a double yolk. I quickly looked up the odds, which I thought would’ve been one in a million, to see why the old tales of good fortune turned the event into a sign of good luck. I was shocked to learn the odds were only 1:1,000. I even saw a man’s picture of 11 double yolk eggs in a frying pan—almost a perfect dozen.

The moment inspired me to write a blog entry referencing this new muse of mine. Oh, it wasn’t stirring enough to write a passionate post, but it was enough to get my gears moving. I decided that if I was able to turn a silly little event into the spark of creative thought, there must be a simple trick to help creatives develop something when his or her muse is missing.

Use A System

“When the creative muse isn’t around, look for systems and strategies to generate good ideas.”
—Jim Jaskol, Ride Control Engineer

I’ll never forget the system I was taught in the Bell Labs Think Tank. The instructor had us look over a new product that was ready for release. He wanted us to brainstorm 100 ways the device could be used. “Once you run out of ideas,” he said. “Think about its use from the perspective of your grandmother. And then from the viewpoint of a child, and so on.” The product released six months later promoted from two perspectives, one of which I had brainstormed. It was a thrilling experience, thanks to the instructor’s system.

Engage In Educational Play

“Understand the problem, do the research, play hard looking for the potential options, sleep on it, and let your subconscious do the rest. Great solutions make a wonderful breakfast.”
—Bobby Brooks, Concept Architect

The number of times I have a great idea pop into my brain during my morning shower is too numerous to count. There is something about playful exploration that continues to reside in your brain well into your slumber that activates the right side of the brain. I can attest to how the brain works while you’re asleep to solve the problem playfully pondered that day. But for it to work, the left side of the brain must first understand the problem and what a solution might look like. Then sleeptime gives rise to the right side of the brain with no limitations.

Create An Environment

“You can’t flip a switch and make someone else creative, but you can set up an environment in which the switch is more often on.”
—Alex Wright, Show Designer

The first time I wandered through an animation studio I couldn’t help but notice all the toys and gadgets cluttering the creative’s work space. There was enough unique stimulus to power multiple feature length films. Several years later I was working as a consultant at Kraft Global Foods and found their new office space designed for creatives to be off the charts. The entire environment didn’t have any hint of “office” in it. The space was designed to feel vacation-like, while being broken up by inspirational and motivational designs to stimulate the workforce. Within minutes of being in that space the Vice President and I solved the five-year-old problem.

Originality comes from the juxtaposition of systems, educational play, and environment. While having a muse simplifies the development of an idea, how we address creativity when the muse is missing determines how consistent we are and how professionally we can create on demand.

Can you imagine how this post was inspired by double egg yolks showing up in my omelet this morning? For my logical friends, I’m sorry that you can’t see the connection, or how one led to the other. But you can rest assured that my omelet was very tasty.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Write, Read and Watch—Lessons from Marvel’s Jim Krueger

Jim_CJ_Art

I got together with a couple dozen creatives over the weekend for a workshop on story. It was a great time of networking with like-minded artists. Jim Krueger, a storyteller, comic book writer, novelist and filmmaker, was the keynote speaker. He’s most known for his works (including Earth X) at Marvel. He also won the prestigious Eisner Award for Justice (DC Comics).

Jim pointed out the three things that all writers need to do each day: write, read, and watch.

WRITE

Writers need to write everyday to strengthen and mature their “voice.” Jim, who tries to write four hours every day, believes that the writing process helps us to pour out the very thing that can fix our broken world. He also suggested that we have to know ourselves in order to find those internal nuggets of value that are worthy to be shared.

He gave us an exercise to write down our top 10 films that we love followed by the top 10 films we hate. The correlation was amazing and helped us to discover the passion that stirs within us. Within the stories we hated was an internal “No” wanting to be expressed. This pensive drive reveals the “Yes” that we want everyone to embrace—the very thing we must write about to be fulfilled.

READ

Screenwriters need to read the best scripts in the genre in which they write. Authors need to read the best books in the genre they write. Studying the best allows us to improve our techniques, while also learning what has already been done. Unique character reveals, rhythms, and pacing become second nature when we immerse ourselves in the writings of the best.

Being able to spot in others’ works what makes us feel good, and why, helps us understand how to craft our own stories that inspire. This is an important base element in writing that will attract followers and build a fan base. It’s the fulfillment of a natural need, according to Jim, who said, “People need to feel good about themselves after watching your story.”

WATCH

Since our world was transformed from a literary to a visual culture, Jim recommended that writers watch feature films and long form television to study what’s being created for the market and what is well received. While he didn’t intend to do a commercial for Movie Pass (now $6.95 for a monthly subscription program), he did recommend going to the movies often for study purposes.

James Patterson, who writes first thing every morning, shared in a class that I took a couple years ago, how he heads to a theater and watches a feature film after his morning writing session. Since he goes daily, he doesn’t always stay for the entire picture, but learns what he can about the market, what’s been done in the realm of stories, and any story techniques that he can observe and capture.

After convincing us that we all needed to be writing, reading and watching, Jim shared that the rules of story must also be followed with no exception. “Rules as a storyteller are never to be broken, only worked around with loopholes,” he said. When rules are broken, the audience can’t easily follow the story and loses interest, so it’s important to make sure the core elements or the logic and reasons behind the rules are never altered.

Jim pointed out that the limitations put on the storyteller are actually valuable creative tools. “Limitations allow us to put surprise and wonder into place,” he said. Understanding how wonder plays a role in the development of entertainment gives us the fuel to explore an idea until it rises to its best version before releasing it to the audience. Jim suggested that it could take anywhere from 4-6 weeks for an idea to mature to its highest value.

At the end of the day, Jim autographed three panel original art from his next published work due out in a few months. Keep your eyes out for his work.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers