Mentors Breathe Inspiration into Creativity

Movie_Theatre

My Home Town Movie Theatre

When I mentor young filmmakers in how to develop their style and breathe life into their films, I often watch their eyes close me out from their thoughts. They are adamant about making sure the film is theirs and they don’t want anyone to give them a helping hand. This is problematic for a collaborative art form.

The idea of inspiring someone to a higher level of art can only come from words of encouragement, difficult moments of challenge, and the sharing of conceptual ideas. The word, “inspire,” means to “breathe into” or to “infuse with life by breathing.” That means someone has to do the breathing of new ideas to help the filmmaker get his mind cranking.

The creative process requires an environment of ideas, enthusiasm and energy. These are tools that help us gain experience from others and expose our minds to various styles and artistry. The shared wealth of history creates a powerful form of influence that brings the young filmmaker to a higher level of art than his or her counter parts ever achieve. Yet, Millennials seldom want to collaborate.

Inspiration of Mentors Stir Our Heartfelt Voice

The best thing that happens in a collaborative process is the deep sense that your own ideas demand to be heard. From deep within the gut comes this voice begging to resound. The inspiration of mentors draw out those deep ideas from within us and we suddenly find a way to express them. The inspiration brings our ideas to the surface so we can take action.

Unfortunately some people think that when you share a creative idea with the hopes of inspiring them, they think you want them to use your idea. But that is far from the truth. The mentor only wants to get the filmmaker thinking about something they never finished thinking about—that special something that resides deep within their heart.

I was mentoring one filmmaker who wanted to create a world that lacked water. The scarcity drove many to kill for a single cup of fresh water. The original script had a sign in it that made the idea of water scarce, but I suggested he find a way to demonstrate the rarity of water instead.

His latest cut of the film had the water sewn throughout the entire story as the key driver of all decisions made by every character. It became obvious that the liquid was such a rare commodity that everyone’s life changed in the presence of fresh water. Within that setting his protagonist could then mature and become a person who questioned his selfishness and chose to demonstrate love sacrificially.

While I gave him a handful of ideas that were plausible to demonstrate the scarcity of water, he was inspired enough to come up with his own unique ideas. Not one of my suggestions made it into the film, which was good, because my goal was to inspire his convictions and expressions. His choices worked.

The Journey of Understanding

Film is an emotional medium that comes from the heart. Those who hold to conservative standards make conservative films. Those who understand the liberal first and then make conservative films takes the audience on a journey that ends with a conservative view that makes sense to all, not just those with likeminded ideologies.

By finding inspiration from both sides of the political spectrum, a filmmaker becomes more powerful in the messages he can send to an audience that’s hungry for answers to the latest societal issues. But closed-minded conservatives who only focus on their views can present nothing of value to the liberal.

And what good is a film that only reaches the likeminded?

Film is not necessary when used as a tool of validation. It’s only necessary to help opposing viewpoints be understood. When film demonstrates the potential results of an idea, while touching the emotions of everyone watching, the audience is able to buy into the concepts and consider how they might apply within their own life.

For this reason I hangout with liberals and conservatives. I read both sides of every issue. And, I create paths through story that will take an audience to the life-breathing conclusion that cries out to be heard. These actions breathe creativity into each viewer so he or she is capable of altering their life with healthier choices.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Niche Groups Claim Wonder Woman

Subcultures Support Wonder Woman’s Messages

Social Media was abuzz for the past two weeks as various subcultures claimed that the Wonder Woman movie supported their cause. From feminists to Christians, niche audiences praised director Patty Jenkins for creating the long awaited female superhero.

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I watched the movie on opening night to get the story’s full impact followed by a second viewing where I could deconstruct the film to understand its underlying messages and structure. I was pleasantly surprised at how Jenkins crafted the story with feminine and masculine scenes, including several mash up scenes with reversed roles.

But more fascinating to me was the reaction of various niche groups claiming the film was the first superhero movie that included their subculture ideologies. I hadn’t seen such a response since the first Star Wars film released. Neither Star Wars’ George Lucas nor Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins acknowledged the attempts.

In fact, Jenkins denied the question of purposely supporting the feminist groups.

“I can’t take on history of 50 percent of the population just because I’m a woman,” Jenkins said to the Hollywood Reporter.

“I don’t care about that at all. I just want to make great movies,” she said in another interview.

Subcultures are not aware of how much their social media comments can build up pressure that battles a director’s artistic choices. When considering what film to direct, Jenkins walked away from Thor: The Dark World because it wasn’t the right fit, which led her to the Wonder Woman opportunity.

“There have been things that have come across my path that seemed like troubled projects,” she said to Reporter Tatiana Siegel. “And I thought, ‘If I take this, it’ll be a disservice to women. If I take this knowing it’s going to be trouble and then it looks like it was me, that’s going to be a problem. If they do it with a man, it will just be yet another mistake the studio made. But with me, it’s going to look like I dropped the ball, and its going to send a very bad message.’ So I’ve been very careful about what I take for that reason.”

Jenkins is another director who creates movies for the general audience. She is diligent in how each scene comes together and what works on screen. Jenkins crafts each scene as a gift of love for all ticket holders.

“I hope they feel inspired to be a hero in their own life and learn love, thoughtfulness and strength,” Jenkins said on GMA.

She has also been humbled by the experience and hopes that she lived up to what the fan base requires, while expanding the film to a more universal audience.

“I couldn’t believe the entire time we were making the movie what was in our hands. I thought, ‘Yes, I love Wonder Woman,’ but also we’re making a movie about someone who wants to teach love and truth in the world right now—and who is incredible—and we want to live up to everything in a superhero movie, but her message is, ‘but lay down those weapons. I believe in a better you in the future,’ which I love,” Jenkins said on CBS This Morning.

After watching several of Jenkins’ interviews, I realized that her work was focused on creating an effective mythology that might stand the test of time. It wasn’t about a woman in the main role, but a story that audiences could understand from their own perspective.

“It’s not about being a woman or being a man, it’s a person’s story that everyone can relate to,” Jenkins said to Tome correspondent Eliana Dockterman.

Just as Lucas did with Star Wars, Jenkins built a mythology that was easily adaptable by all niche groups wanting to claim the film as their own. The power of the film was based on the viewers’ perception, not the specific content. All Jenkins did was direct the film to the best of her ability. It’s the subcultures that claimed the film was made with them in mind.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Picking a 3, 8 or 12-Week Shooting Schedule

StripBoard

Sample Scheduling Strip Board

A friend of mine surprised me with a note detailing the results of his unique research. He was adamant about learning why certain films succeed with a shooting schedule that kills other films. The correlation was eye opening and made me curious about my list of shooting scripts.

Typical Movies of the Week (MOW) fit easily into a 3-week schedule due to time constraints and budgets. Although some networks are satisfied with the results garnered by 2-week schedules because they prefer few set-ups and lots of close-ups.

Beginning filmmakers also use the 2-3 week schedule because they don’t yet have the artistic flair or knowledge of what to do with the extra time provided in an 8-week schedule. Many newbie directors can’t tell what the actor did right or wrong, so they move to the next shot without any exploration of how to best capture the human condition.

Oscar® loves the 8-week schedule because it keeps the story intimate and gives plenty of time to explore the artistic values that expose the human condition. The vast majority of Academy Award nominees and winners hold well to the 8-week shooting schedule. Few Oscar® winners use a shorter or longer shooting schedule.

Highly commercial films are forced to use the 12-week schedule due to its elaborate shots, visual effects and global storylines. The bigger box office spectaculars have even stretched the shooting schedule out to 6 months in order to properly create the world of adventure adored by audiences worldwide.

Understanding why the films in each category could succeed was impressive, but I found the list of failures more enlightening.

Many horror and Faith-based films attempt to make an 8-week film in 2-weeks and wonder why their box office couldn’t hit Hollywood’s $40MM mark that determines success within the industry. While most horror films shot within a 3-week schedule hit $12MM, Faith-based films tend to hit $3MM. I was curious about the gap.

According to the research, horror films use a simple “coming after you” action device to move the story forward and salts in a secondary plotline of romance or something from “Geekdom.” Faith-based films seldom use action plotlines, so the story has no forward movement. The filmmakers rely solely on the message’s innate value rather than salting it into an action throughline.

Of course, 8 and 12-week scheduled films usually have a strong action plotline and one or two subplots to entertain the masses. This structure in of itself demands more shooting time and exploration of the human condition. Comedies on the other hand don’t adhere to the story structure, as they explore improvisational work by the talent. Doing so can accidentally remove the pacing and format of the story, making it fall apart in the eyes of the audience.

Most $40MM plus stories are shot on the 8-week schedule using full story structure with an action plotline and two subplots. The longer schedule attracts larger names to the project that can draw a larger audience. The key to the film’s success typically rests on the director, writer and talent. Story is king and knowing how to direct is essential.

Most of the stories I write are for 8 and 12-week schedules. However, most of the shows I’ve been hired to direct have been for 3 and 8-week shooting schedules. The shorter schedules were due to investors or producers that wanted to spend as little money as possible to achieve their results, rather than investing the amount needed to honor the story’s natural schedule.

When I shot Mystery at the Johnson Farm we scheduled 11 pages a day and shot lots of close-ups with little coverage. When I was in The Dark Night’s parade scene we were capturing less than a page a day. On Nolan’s heavy stunt days they were lucky to capture one to two eights of a page a day.

The story demands a certain amount schedule for each of its specific scenes. To rob the story of what it requires only lowers the quality of the film. To give too much time to scenes causes the show to become bloated, forcing the editor to battle the director—trimming favorite shots for the sake of pacing and entertainment value.

The key question with independent film … is the story well structured enough to require the golden 8-week schedule or is it too weak? If it’s weak the filmmaker can either adjust the script or refocus his distribution to a small cable network in place of a theatrical release.

©2017 by CJ Powers

Silly Arguments on “Faith-Based” Term

WordsAn article about dropping the term “faith-based” from the film industry recently became fighting words among Evangelical filmmakers. Those who felt their films were of a higher caliber didn’t want to be grouped with the “low budget,” “bad story,” “preaching films.” Others felt it was a great label to signal niche audiences to attend films that would interest them.

The argument continued with a comparison of which films are “Christ honoring” and which are not. Further griping surrounded the idea of filmmakers taking “artistic liberty” with the subject versus honoring the “biblical cannon.” The heated words started to spin in my mind as I read each viewpoint. The result: I laughed.

This was the same argument about who was better to follow: Paul or Apollos. The answer is neither man, but instead follow their leader. Making an important decision based on one or two words, rather than a directional conversation about how to move the industry forward is ludicrous.

There are several Christian filmmaking organizations that support “faith-based” filmmakers. Each group is capable of defining these marketing terms for audiences. But until that void is filled, the distributors will continue to define things based on their lack of understanding within the niche markets reached.

But until this changes, I’ll keep laughing at the social media arguments. And, I might even suggest that those who want the “faith-based” label use it and those who don’t should come up with a more descriptive term to promote their films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

First Results from #OsacrSoWhite

ghostintheshell.jpgAbout a year ago, Hollywood was ablaze with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy encouraging studios to give more opportunities to “women and actors of color.” Not just opportunities, but equal opportunities. Giving little thought to what the viewing audience wanted, studios jumped in with immediate change.

The first few films saw studios take male roles and swap out the leads with women. Sony kicked things off with a remake of Ghostbusters starring women in the originally created male roles and placed men in the supporting roles. The film was a financial flop falling short of its breakeven point by $70MM.

Instead of doing a remake with women, Warner Brothers altered the formula slightly by creating Ocean’s 8 to contrast the Clooney/Pitt franchise. The story is about Danny Ocean’s sister pulling together a female team to knock off the crime of the century by hitting New York City’s star-studded annual Met Gala. Analysts are already suggesting that the films’ June 8, 2018 release will fall far short of its all-star cast budget.

Marvel varied the swap out mix when it announced its decision to change Iron Man to a female lead. The next plot has Tony Stark walking from his Iron Man persona; a black woman who’ll be called Ironheart fills the void. Since the largest grossing actor in the world, Robert Downey Jr., plays Stark/Iron Man and Ironheart is played by a relative unknown, analysts fear Marvel will be forced to slash its budget dramatically to counter for a huge drop at the box office.

Disgruntled fans of the above films demanded their franchises not be destroyed by swapping out men for women in lead roles, but instead suggested the women be given their own stories/films/franchises. But how’s that going?

A couple studios green-lit tentpole films starring women in roles originally written for females. Scarlett Johansson was tagged to star as Major in Paramount’s blockbuster film Ghost in the Shell. And, Gal Gadot was cast in the large budget Wonder Woman.

Ghost in the Shell was the first tentpole film to release and flop due to pressure from the social media PC police. A minority group of Americans hyped the Internet with words about Scarlett Johansson “whitewashing” the “Asian” role. The stir caused many to wait for the video rather than packing out the box office.

Analysts thought the Johansson vehicle would succeed because it was based on a highly supported title and would give anime its long overdue exposure to the global marketplace. No one expected the social media police would assume that the non-descript racial role of the woman inside of the shell was actually Asian and blast Johansson for “whitewashing” the role.

Those interviewed in the Asia Pacific region were shocked that Americans took offences on their behalf. Contrary to social media’s PC comments most Asians love Johansson’s work and wanted to see her fan base drive the global proliferation of big budget anime, but the social police brought an end to that dream.

WWarmpitThe social media PC police also attacked Gal Gadot for shaving her Wonder Woman armpits. The outpouring caused Warner Brothers to put the film back into postproduction and color her light under arm skin tones a darker shade. This childish turmoil forced Warner Brothers to consider how social media might negatively impact their budget, which likely was the cause of the evaporation of its massive ad dollars—the film is now being promoted with a fraction of its original budget.

Taking roles away from men rather than giving new roles to women isn’t working at the box office. Nor is one minority group hindering a film featuring other minority leads. Both bad choices leave the field open for male driven films to bring in the box office money—the least risky films for studios to make. And, politically the least diverse films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

The Duties of a Filmmaker

picThis morning I was curious about the changes in the film industry based on the generational shift in business. The shift is hard to describe, but instead of handing numerous projects over to millennial filmmakers, Hollywood is still making most of the films with more experienced directors and producers.

I googled to learn what new filmmakers think their duties are and was surprised to read about tasks and software. There were no articles about crafting great stories in regard to a filmmaker’s duties. Nor was there anything I could find about the filmmaker’s core responsibility—entertaining the audience, while exploring the human condition.

Film is an emotional medium, which suggests a plethora of articles about how filmmakers create those proverbial roller coaster rides for the audience, but again there were few articles educating millennial filmmakers on how to build the emotions of the audience.

Story is king in both the emotional arena and in the exploration of the human condition. Story is also pure entertainment that opens the eyes and hearts of the audience to consider the filmmaker’s message. But again, there was little about how a millennial filmmaker could craft a story that changes the lives of its audience.

I think Steven Spielberg summed up the core problem well:

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”

I’m not suggesting that filmmakers take classes on film and story theory. But I do advocate that new directors have as many diverse life experiences as possible to create a cinematic “tool belt” from which to fashion dynamic stories. I also recommend directors read a minimum of 10 books a year to capture and understand the observations of writers who explore the human condition.

Unfortunately the typical Millennial only reads an average of five books a year, keeping them far from the ability to contemplate various viewpoints, let alone draw noteworthy conclusions about our culture. A director must have a life perspective that integrates with, not isolates from, the culture at large in order to meet the audience where their hearts live and guide them to a more hope filled life.

Directors must also live inside the culture at large. They don’t have to be of it, but they do have to be in it. I worked on a major animation project years ago with a professor that was my exact opposite. I was conservative and she was liberal. I believed in sustaining life at all costs and she believed in “mercy” killings. The list continued ad nauseam.

The project we worked on helped over one million kids learn the basics of chemistry in 12 weeks. Even I fully comprehended the scientific principles in that short time frame. Why? Because I lived in the professor’s culture and in my own, which allowed me to bring all kinds of innovative ideas and new perspectives to bear on the project.

Once released, the professor admitted that she had worked with several liberal directors that were unable to simplify here complex teachings into simple animations. None of the previous solutions shared truth in a logical manner. She understood that it was my diverse knowledge and experience that made me the right director for the project.

She shared how much she grew as a person from the experience and offered her future services for free. She was willing to do anything for an opportunity to collaborate again. And, she started to rethink her position on a few controversial life issues.

Directors must be able to enter the worlds of other people and capture the essence of the person’s “why.” He must also thoroughly think through how to thread his message in and out of the entertainment elements of a story. These techniques allow the director to come along side of the audience and draw them from their viewpoint to his by the end of the film—fulfilling the duties of the director.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

A Director’s Focus Slugline

SampleBirthed by documentarians to keep shows focused on topic, the focus slugline eventually shifted into use by editors inundated with hours and hours of footage to sort. The simplicity of outlining the focus of a film shifted to long form directors and then to independents.

A focus slugline is NOT to be confused with a script header.

EXT. THE WHITE HOUSE – NIGHT

The header includes the annotation of the interior or exterior, scene name, and time frame of day or night. It is found at the top of every scene to organize the script and simplify production management forms.

The focus slugline is typically hand written by the director in the left margin of the script. It runs vertically down the page and gives the “who,” “does,” “what” of the scene. Some directors have sub-focus-sluglines to breakdown the “who does what” by character power shifts.

A sample focus slugline is: Dad surprises son. The “who” is the dad, the “does” is the surprises, and the “what” is the son. This focus slugline puts the emphasis on the giver of the surprise; in this case it’s the dad. The director’s goal is to remind himself to put the attention on the dad during filming so he doesn’t’ accidentally shift the story to be about the son in this particular scene.

Directors are asked a myriad of questions on set every day and in spite of the plethora of queries he must remember what to focus on within the scene. The Focus Slugline is a quick glance system that allows the director to recalibrate his perspective when its time to roll cameras.

In the sample, if the film were about the son, the focus slugline would have read: Son receives car. The “who” is the son, the “does” is the receiving of the gift, and the “what” is the car. The camera shot list in a film about the son would reflect a completely different set of shots than the story about the dad.

In longer scenes that have a lot of power shifts between the characters, the director can create a sub-focus-slugline for every new character goal established that drives the overall story. Since the shift in power also shifts the focus temporarily, the use of sub-focus-sluglines helps the director to make sure the focus returns to the right place before the scene ends.

The sample, when played out in a short sequence, might look like this:

SAMPLE 1
Dad surprises son.
Son startles traffic.
Dad calls insurance company.

Some directors prefer to preserve each beat of the scene/sequence like this:

SAMPLE 2
Dad surprises son.
Son runs outside.
Dad tosses keys.
Son starts car.
Dad reflects pride.
Son startles traffic.
Dad calls insurance company.

Still other directors prefer to work in sentences rather than sluglines, which might look like this:

SAMPLE 3
Dad surprises son with a new car parked in the driveway.
Son runs outside and stares at the sports car.
Dad tosses his son the car keys.
Son hops in the car, starts it up and shifts into reverse.
Dad smiles from ear to ear with pride for his son.
Son backs into oncoming traffic and startles other drivers.
Dad grabs his cell phone and calls insurance company to clarify coverage.

The key to successfully using focus sluglines is to make sure the director gets what he needs when others break his focus on set. The SAMPLE 1 focus sluglines (Dad surprises son. Son startles traffic. Dad calls insurance company.) will work for most directors because it reveals the scene’s beginning, middle and end. Others may want to list every beat for more complex scenes, but seldom will sentences be used unless the information has to be reduced to writing for a treatment or scene synopsis.

The “who does what” focus slugline clarifies the emphasis of the film segment with a single glance. It allows the director to quickly regain his concentration and communicate with cast and crew the goals of the shot sequence. And, it also gives an editor a great tool if the script supervisor captures the same information.

Click here to view a sample that I created from the “National Treasure” screenplay.

© 2017 by CJ Powers