Directors Embrace Adaptability

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Newbie directors ask what are the most important elements needed to be a great director. Most hope that the answer has something to do with technology or watching a lot of movies. They rarely expect the answer to be a character trait.

Thanks to my festival judging opportunities, I’ve talked with hundreds of directors. They’ve had a vast range of skills.

The director’s passionate stories always include a turning point in their film project. It included a moment when they breathed life into a scene that was about to turn bland or die on the vine.

The director saved the project’s near-death experience by choosing to be adaptable.

All directors can protect their stories by embracing three basic forms of adaptability.

Go with the Flow

In an ever-changing landscape, directors who go with the flow are more likely to thrive. No matter how well planned, there are opportunities for a director to take a creative risk.

I directed one of two promotional pieces at an old firehouse. I had time to scout the area in advance and determine the perfect set-up for speed and artistry. I asked the production manager to have 1-2 12X12 butterfly scrims available for the shoot.

On the day of production, the producer wanted my team to shoot first. I asked the production manager for the scrims to diffuse the sun. He had decided not to rent any scrims. That put the lead actors looking into the sun.

I had to adapt by moving the talent from the sidewalk onto the shaded porch and re-block the entire scene. This forced my director of photography to adapt. He had to adjust his settings to cover the 2 – 3 stop lighting difference between the shaded area and the bright sun.

Be Resilient

Directors plan out their rehearsals and production. But sometimes an outside influence causes a major setback. The director has to bounce back and show resilience to get the team back on course.

I directed a musical for the stage. The venue forced us to hold auditions the night before rehearsals started. Since the show required a large cast of kids, the auditions went long—which everyone expected.

The unexpected moment showed up in the form of the venue’s manager who decided it was time for everyone to go home. He gave us a 20-minute warning. The producer managed interference, hoping I’d finish before he lost the argument.

The manager shouted for me to stop until they could square things away. While the two argued, I went up to each nervous kid and help them understand that they were not in trouble. After 45-minutes of heated debate, he gave us 30-minutes to finish.

At that moment, I had to come across to the kids as the leader of fun. I needed to bounce back and show that it was time to play. My sole goal was to turn their concerned faces into smiles. I had to help the kids let go of the intensity and embrace playfulness.

Innovate

The key ingredient to adaptability is innovation. Directors have a team of experts with various life experiences. Directors that are innovation-oriented are on the lookout for the next best thing.

I was shooting a spring day in a YA film in October. The scene required a goose to attack a new foster child, but the goose and its wrangler didn’t show up on set. Thankfully the attack-goose puppet and the puppeteer did show up.

I worked with the stunt coordinator, puppeteer, and the director of photography. We determined the best angles and moves to reduce the number of live goose shots needed. I figured that a second unit would shoot the live goose to match our principal photography.

Three weeks later, the second unit started to film. But the deep green grass was now a light shade of November brown.

The second unit director researched solutions. He bought a type of green paint that could match the footage. The paint was unique in allowing sunlight to pass through—keeping the grass alive.

Adaptability empowers a director to succeed when plans get blocked. Directors can practice the above characteristics until it becomes a part of who they are. Then they’ll be ready to protect their next project from surprises.

© 2022 by CJ Powers

“Beautifully Broken” Interview with Director Eric Welch

Eric_WelchI met Eric last spring at a media conference where I watched 2-3 films a day during the week. The screenings were 1-6 months ahead of their theatrical release date. I was only impressed with two of the films: I Can Only Imagine and Beautifully Broken. Both films were hybrid films that were closer to being that of a redemptive story like The Blind Side, Les Misérables, or Gravity, than a faith-based film.

Unfortunately, both movies released as faith-based films, greatly reducing its potential audience. However, I Can Only Imagine survived with a cumulative $83MM box office against 10 new releases. Beautifully Broken released today against 23 new films with far less promotional dollars, yet the emotional story is every bit worth watching.

I had to give the film’s director a call this morning to chat about his first feature being released. Here is my conversation with Eric…

CJ:        Beautifully Broken is about three families that end up being intertwined and they’re from different walks of life.

Eric:     Absolutely. The film is about three families coming from different worlds. Two completely different worlds. The springboard of our story starts with action. It begins in Rwanda, and William Mwizerwa, a Rwandan businessman, is thrown into a decision when he is forced to flee Rwanda because of the genocide that’s taking place and the tribal warfare. He has to leave his [extended] family behind and escape to Kenya with his wife and his daughter.

CJ:        I understand he faced the difficult decision to accept an opportunity in America, but he had to get established there before being able to bring his family.

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Eric:     So, he leaves Kenya, and ends up going to America where he meets Randy Hartley, a man who’s going through his own set of challenges. Through the friendship that these two [men] strike up, an amazing story unfolds that shows the redemption and power of God in people’s lives. Through the course of the film, we see these men in their relationship save each other’s families. Then there’s a third family involved that’s a little bit of a curve ball in how that family interacts. The stories blend together in the end for a very inspirational and powerful film.

CJ:        When I watched the film last spring, it felt like an international version of The Blind Side. There were similarities where a family decided to help somebody else and in return, they received blessings within their own life.

BB4Eric:     I think that’s an interesting parallel. I think the thing that is unique about this film, is that you have certain assumptions and stereotypes out in the world today about people in other countries. Just like The Blind Side challenged some of those stereotypes, I believe this film does even more so. You assume that just because … one of the lines of the film is, “Just because you see no tears does not mean the person hadn’t cried.” That’s really true of so many stories in this film, but also in life. We have assumptions that people live Facebook lives. Everything is perfect because you see they’re out traveling or doing this, that, and the other, but people have things in their lives that hurt. They have things that they don’t wanna share. There’re scars. There’re pains. The glorious thing about this film is that you see how God can use different people’s stories to bring hope and healing to other people.

CJ:        I certainly picked up on that theme of helping others can actually change the world around us. Did that theme just rise from within the three stories that came together, or did you find a way to bring focus to it in the film?

Eric:     The way the movie unfolds is true, and people may think that it’s hard to believe. If Hollywood wrote the story, no one would believe it, but Hollywood didn’t write this story. God did. It’s just an amazing true story, and a lot of things that happened will really shine and inspire people.

BB5One of the craziest things is we had the premiere the other day. We had the premiere in Franklin at a place called The Factory. The first job William got when he came to America, was at The Factory. It’s mind blowing to think this man escaped Rwanda, came to America, first job that he had was at this factory, and 20 plus years later we’re celebrating a film about this gentle, quite hero in the same place that he had a job.

Now if that isn’t God, I don’t know what is because you couldn’t have written that. That’s just such an amazing way that God just kind of sees the larger narrative.

CJ:        I’m always amazed anytime there’s some form of providence that occurs. We had talked a while back about the fact that this film wasn’t quite a faith-based film, but it’s also not quite categorized as a redemptive film. The film is in between both camps. I Can Only Imagine was also more redemptive than faith-based and ended up making $83 million. What was it like creating that unique balance between a faith-based and a redemptive film?

Eric:     It is a bit of a challenge to walk that line. Our film deals with some real issues, and that’s what’s resonating with people. We don’t shy away from tough topics, and we show them in the light of God’s redemption. But the quote that the friend of mine had encapsulated on this film when he saw it was, “I don’t wanna call it a faith-based film because it’s a different type of movie. I wanna call it a film about faith.” You’re seeing how faith infuses in real-life stories.

CJ:        I appreciate the naturalness to which the elements came out. They weren’t forced like in many faith-based films, but rather came out of the circumstance that each person faced.

Eric:     Yeah, there’s not an agenda that we’re trying to push on people. We’re really just trying to tell a story of how these people were able to overcome … hopefully you’ll find yourself in one of these characters, or someone you know, and identify with these people.

CJ:        I know you come from the world of short films and music videos. You’ve made quite a few. Was this your first feature?

BB6Eric:     Yeah. Coming from the world of music videos, it was a challenge. It was literally like filming a music video every morning. Every morning, five, six o’clock in the morning you show up on set and you’re just like boom, go. Most music videos you only get to film a day based on budget and usually the artist’s availability. So, this was like doing a music video every day for two and a half months. It was a marathon.

And continually I was telling myself, “Okay. Pace yourself. Pace yourself.” There’d be nights where I wouldn’t go out to eat after being offset. I would just go home, look over what we had to do the next day, and go to sleep because it’s a grind. It’s 14, 16-hour days sometimes and you’re up, standing up on your feet, directing, working with people and then the pressure cooker of the clock is a real thing. So, yeah. It was a challenge. Like an idiot, I took on a film that has three storylines weaving together in two different countries. So, I jumped into the deep end of the pool, if you will.

CJ:        The last time I saw a film with three interwoven stories was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Now, he had the added issue of showing parallel action while each timeline was different. One took place in a couple hours, one in a day, and one over several days. You fortunately had a more equally based timeline. But what was it like being able to track the three stories and how they kept interweaving?

Eric:     We had a great script to work with. That really was my guideline, and laying the script to the timeline of what happened with everyone and trying to make sure that you tell each individual story of each family clearly, but then also [considering] how their stories are gonna weave in toward the end was a real challenge. There’re props that you have to consider, like this comes up later, so make sure you film this, but also the dialogue and what you could and couldn’t say. We had to be very careful because it’ll affect the story later on, but not just in one story. The other families are affected but nuances and changes in each story.

So, I had to be very specific. Had to know that story inside and out before we went filming because in the chaos of making a film sometimes, like we have this scene at a roadblock. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, and we’ve got a car on fire here. We’ve got militia soldiers going from car to car questioning people. Then you have your main family there stopped at the roadblock and what are they gonna do? You have to capture dialogue, and there’s a prop that plays a really important part in the film. So, there’s all these elements that you have to capture and the sun is moving. You can’t stop it. I’m not Joshua. So, there’s that continual process of trying to beat the clock and make sure that you get everything in a pressure cooker.

CJ:        The scene with the car fire was beautifully cut together. In fact, it was almost like a music video, which I thought did a couple things. One, it really revealed the danger that the characters faced, and it softened the action enough, as a PG-13 film for families to better handle.

Eric:     Yeah, well I mean that’s the thing. Our film deals with real situations, but it’s not a graphic film and that’s something that I as a filmmaker have embraced. I think people … there’s a lot of times films, they have to be gratuitous and they have to go over the top to show something. It’s like going back to 300 and Meet the Spartans. There’s a Spartan, there’s blood splattering on the lens. It’s just like, “Okay. Got it.” I think people are sophisticated enough in storytelling these days that you can imply something is happening and people get it. They understand what’s going [on] without having to jump in and get in the weeds on things.

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It’s really a beautiful story that covers the common ground that we all have no matter what our social, economic, racial, or nationality of our background. It really covers all those bases and propels you to an inspiring end that is a beautiful story and really touches people’s hearts.

We had a pre-screening last night and the first person coming out of the theater was like, “Man, thank you for making this movie because I went through what this character went through…” This was a grown man in tears. I had four or five fathers come to me in tears, expressing their story, what they went through. I think we’re seeing a lot of people come through this film inspired and challenged and healed in some way.

CJ:        I remember when we met. I must have seen nine films by the time I saw yours. The one thing I remember clearly about yours is that it was, to me, the most real. It truly touched, not just through the theme, but also watching how, when we do something that we think is trivial or little, it actually can impact someone else’s life in a massive way.

Eric:     I appreciate you saying that. You saying that is very humbling because I know the other films you saw and that means a lot. Thank you for sharing that.

CJ:        I think certainly as a director you have certain hopes and aspirations for where your film is going to head and what you hope it will accomplish, but there’s so many other factors. For instance, it can be frustrating if the marketing department doesn’t agree with the directorial department. And, instead of your film release being up against 3-10 other films this weekend, your film is releasing alongside of 23 new films. That’s a lot of competition for the audience to search through for a good film. The good thing is that out of the three dozen movies I’ve seen this year, yours still stands in my top ten films worth watching in 2018.

Eric:     Well, I … hey, that … thank you. I mean, what can one say? That means a lot because I know your background. I know what your passions are. That’s a huge honor to be in that top 10.

CJ:        So, you’ve come out of the gate with a great first feature, so what’s next on your docket? Do you have any plans or thoughts?

Eric:     People will ask that, and they wanna know, “What’s he gonna do next? I really enjoyed this, what’s next?” I’m like, “Well, God only knows and he ain’t saying.” So, I am just taking it as it comes. The first thing, I promise you, will be rest ’cause we’ve been pushing on this film hard for several years.

CJ:        You definitely have to take time off and relax. Congratulations on your opening. I’m excited to watch the numbers and see how many people see your film over the next two weeks. I hope it does better than your 23 competitors.

Eric:     Well, I appreciate your support.

CJ:       All right. Well, have a great day and I hope you celebrate your weekend.

Eric:     Hey, thanks so much. I appreciate your support and reaching out and it was great talking with you.

© 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Meeting A Magic Dragon

PiffCJ

I got to meet Piff the Magic Dragon last weekend. You might be familiar with his older brother… Steve (were you thinking, Puff?).

No, I didn’t travel to Piffland through the mentalism of Mr. Piffles (his chihuahua). Nor did I head out to see him at his Las Vegas show. Piff came to Chicago, and I got to chat with him (and goof around) before his performance at the Chicago Improv.

Piff is a magician who has been performing for 20 years. But his Piff persona was launched nine years ago and given a big push on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. He received a golden ticket for his performance and headed into the quarter finals, semi-finals, and the finals. Unfortunately, he didn’t get enough votes for the finale.

Piff, or should I call him John Van der Put, also starred on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. While he didn’t fool Penn and Teller, his humor and performance was so appreciated that the guys rated his act their “favorite of the season” and said Piff was “a stunningly good magician.”

Magicians worldwide have recognized his talents. Van der Put won the 2008 British Ring Close-up Magician of the Year, while The Magic Circle awarded him their 2011 Close-up Magician of the Year, 2012 Stage Magician of the Year (as Piff), and the 2013 Carlton Award. In 2013, The Circle also inducted him into their Inner Ring with Gold Star.

I’ve cracked up laughing every time I’ve seen him. After meeting him last Saturday and watching him come up with humorous, off-the-cuff comments, I now consider him the funniest of all magicians that I’ve seen perform—and I’ve watched lots of magicians.

TailThe funniest laugh I got was learning about how John became Piff the Magic Dragon. He was the only one to arrive at a costume party in costume. This drove him to mope around, getting more grumpy as the night progressed. His sharp wit, self-deprecating humor, and deadpan delivery had people laughing throughout the evening. One of his friends suggested he add this persona to his act and Piff was born.

Piff’s YouTube videos have received millions of viewings. He not only has a Las Vegas show, but he has also been touring for the past four and a half years as Piff. His deadpan delivery is so effective that those posing with Piff for selfies work hard to get him to crack a smile. However, one of his crew members who always helps shoot selfies, seems to only click the button when Piff is straight faced.

While some have suggested Piff’s slight 1/32 inch crook in his lips was him holding back laughter, I wasn’t surprised by him joining in the audience’s laughter several times during his live performance. Piff brought people onto the stage to help him with tricks, but they managed to say things that were odd, awkward, or unique, of which Piff took advantage, to generate loud outbursts of laughter from across the audience.

In fact, I laughed so much that I’d have to consider asking Piff to be my best man, er, ah, dragon, should I find Ms. Right—Just kidding… or am I?

© 2018 by CJ Powers