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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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.

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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

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

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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

Confident Creations

© Peter Kim - Fotolia.comI recently coached a young filmmaker who wrote a short story that demonstrated a significant amount of confidence in his work. The artistic choices were bold and he didn’t allow any inexperience to slow his approach. The script was resolute in his desire to thrill the audience. The boldness of the character alone was enough to capture the audience’s attention as he struggled to discover what had happened to him.

This confidence in one’s art comes from practice and exploration. There is no other teacher that can raise the tone necessary for the proper development of a story. An internal boldness must surface in order to birth a vision of magnitude.

“The more you practice, learn, and make discoveries, the more confident you will be!” —Tim Delaney, Concept Development

Confidence is not the sole key to successfully developing a story. All creations need to take on a life of its own and transform throughout, as the plot points are ticked off, heading diligently toward the climax.

However, the backbone of any good story rises from the creator’s viewpoint and must stay intact, yet flexible. In this case, the filmmaker chose to shoot a short film in order to entice investors or distributors to bring a feature version of his story to the silver screen. He purposely left out the ending of the short story to enhance the audience’s desire to see the feature to find out how things end.

While raising a central, unanswered question certainly seeds a desire for more, it doesn’t prove that the filmmaker knows how to tell a complete story. If I were investing, I’d watch his short film and realize that he has a beginning, middle, and no ending. I’d feel ripped off and wonder if the feature will also leave the audience hanging or unsatisfied.

His choice isn’t uncommon. There is a trend in filmmakers leaving short films open ended. While it’s unsettling to the audience, it shifts the focus from the director’s ability to tell a story to his ability to make something look and feel cool. Many young filmmakers are more interested in the look and feel of a project than in giving the audience a resolving end to the story.

Unfortunately, films with only a beginning and middle do poorly at the box office. Even short films with solid endings outperform “impact films” 10 to 1. One reason is that a person won’t tell others about a film that doesn’t resolve. Very few will watch the film a second time because the impact is only good at the first viewing. All subsequent viewings require a satisfying ending.

The film or the creation must be crafted with skill and confidence to be effective, but it also must have an ending to elicit ticket sales. Otherwise, the audience will be much smaller and the film seldom watched more than once.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

5 Motifs of a Redemptive Movie

© ktsdesign - Fotolia.comThe most repetitive conversation I had at a recent conference was about the difference between redemptive and faith-based stories. They shared that a redemptive film has five motifs that permeate the story, which delivers a single message. In contrast, faith-based films do not have commonality of format, form, or motifs, and always have multiple messages within the story.

The simplicity of a single message within a redemptive film allows the filmmaker to explore the story from the key perspective of each motif—impacting the audience with a demonstration of how to implement the message within their personal lives.

Here are the five motifs of a redemptive film that are both demonstrated and emphasized:

  1. Moral character: The film demonstrates what moral and immoral actions look like. It also demonstrates both in its proper light, distinguishing between right and wrong. Many times these issues are demonstrated or revealed through the attributes of the main character facing a moral dilemma.
  2. Judgement breaking moral law, making mistakes, or being disobedient: The consequences of breaking the film’s moral code is demonstrated. The ramifications that impact others is also demonstrated.
  3. Blessings of faith in and obedience to moral standards: The blessings and good fortune of obedience is demonstrated. When outside circumstances hinder or attack the blessings, the filmmaker demonstrates the internalized good or blessings that remain.
  4. Unmerited sacrificial love that covers another’s moral dilemma: This act of selflessness always heightens the climax of the story, as it is the single most impactful act that anyone could give another—or that anyone could receive. Sometimes it’s done to redeem the main character and other times the main character does it to redeem another after having become a changed person. Regardless of who makes the sacrifice, the main character’s need for someone to save him is first made clear.
  5. What a moral world would look like: This short sequence demonstrates what the benefits of following in the main character’s footsteps looks like. While it might not be a perfect utopia, it becomes clear it is a more fulfilling life.

Act one typically introduces us to a character who is likeable in spite of his moral waverings. He soon faces a circumstance that forces him into act two where he explores both the moral and immoral sides of every issue hinted at in the first act, including outcomes and ramifications. By the third act someone makes a sacrifice to right the character from his bad choices, giving him a chance to demonstrate sacrificial love to others. At the end of the film we see what the main character’s new life looks like as a result of him embracing the gift of grace he received.

The audience goes home having vicariously experienced the very things demonstrated in the movie. They have the opportunity to embrace the positive decisions to see if they, too, can experience the same beneficial outcome of a sacrificial lifestyle.

Faith-based films don’t set up the audience to vicariously explore the good and bad options as well as the outcomes—most only show the good. Instead, the audience is informed about what is the right and wrong way of living and have to decide if what’s preached has merit. And if it does have merit in their personal life, they have the information, but without any demonstration of how to apply or implement changes in their life.

What distinguishes these two types of films is driven by the audience. Faith-based audiences demand the films are based on ideals and are generally family friendly and safe for all ages. Redemptive audiences desire the raw truth and the practical applications to implement into their own lives what is demonstrated on screen. Faith-based films are also pushed to be overt in preaching their numerous messages, while redemptive films must lightly salt their single message into the story where it fits organically.

Faith-based audiences are firm on this issue because they don‘t ever want the filmmaker to appear weak in his or her stand on spiritual issues—not wanting to “deny Christ” with anything less than the overt message. Redemptive film audiences want to, after watching the demonstration of the main character’s choices, make their own decision about whether or not the filmmaker’s message is right for them. They don’t want anything “forced down their throats.”

There is a place for both types of films in the market, but clarity can reduce the confusion on what the audience can expect. To over simplify the matter:

  • Redemptive films organically demonstrate a single message to the general public.
  • Faith-based films preach numerous messages to the like-minded or proverbial choir.

By the way, for the fans of faith-based films, the stories shared by Jesus were redemptive stories, but that’s a topic for another blog some day.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Preparing the Pitch

Woman reading a treatmentPitch meetings became more popular over the past few years due to its ability to quickly sift and sort the weak from the strong stories. Two weeks ago, I participated in a three-hour pitch session that included a couple dozen distributors and investors, along with a few dozen filmmaking hopefuls. Each person was given 5-7 minutes to share whatever information they thought might get them a significant followup meeting. The outcomes brought tears to the eyes of some newbies and hope to those who had refined their craft year after year.

When I wasn’t in a pitch, I took time to coach a few of the rookies with the hope that their next pitch would be improved. I asked one woman, who was sulking deeply, to share her pitch with me so that I might give her a tip or two. Hope filled her eyes and she dove into a very complex opening that I wasn’t able to follow. I shared a few adjustments and then watched her walk back into the pitch room.

Seven minutes later she returned to the prep room with a big smile on her face. She shared how the distributor enjoyed her pitch and asked for a copy of her script. I watched her dance around the room and head into the hallway with a sense of adventure stirring from within. Here are the three adjustments that I suggested:

  1. SHARE YOUR PASSION: Film is an emotional medium that takes people on a ride. The pitch needs to take on the same emotional tamber as the film. The explosive beats must be shared boisterously and the loving beats with tender care. If the listener can pick up on your emotional tone, they will be entertained and assume the film will do the same.
  2. BE YOURSELF: When a distributor or investor is listening to your pitch, they will judge the story on its merits, but from the perspective or through filter that you offer. Their decision to greenlight a project is based on three weighted factors: You (60%), your project (30%) and your business plan or ROI (10%). They want to know who they’ll be working with and whether or not you’re a storyteller.
  3. TELL A COMPELLING STORY: Pretend you’re hanging around a campfire and are taking turns telling stories. When it’s your turn, tell the story in a way that captivates their interest or raises a question that they have to have answered. Share some personal traits about your main character and the struggle he or she overcomes. And no matter what, don’t sound like a salesperson.

I used an iPad during my pitch sessions to show illustrations that reflected the style and design of the stories I shared. It quickly got everyone around the table onto the same page, saving enough time to discuss our next steps.

All but one of my meetings were successful. The odd one out was due to the exasperation of the distributor who had endured 2.8 hours of bad pitches. When I started to introduce myself with a handshake, he told me to sit down and dove into a lecture about what he needed, eating up 6.8 minutes of my 7-minute slot. I chose not to interrupt him. I knew he was exhausted and wouldn’t have been able to hear a word I said, so I just listened.

When he finished, he apologized for eating up my time and suggested it was my turn to talk. I said, “I have a story that meets every need you mentioned except for two.”

“Really? Wow, that’s great, let me hear it.”

“Unfortunately my time is up,” I said concerned for the next filmmaker awaiting her turn, “but I’ll be back in touch with you if I decide this is the direction I’d like to go. Thank you for your time.” I shook his hand and walked away. I glanced back to see a look of confusion on his face. He knew that his rant had blocked my opportunity and I wondered if he felt the loss of a potentially great story slip away. But I doubt it.

Film is a collaborative art form that requires all players to embrace some compromise in the melding of artistic values and ideas to be successful. While I might have raised some level of intrigue, I hadn’t given him any story information to merit him making a follow up call to learn more. I was the only one who lost.

Most everyone in the film industry I’ve met are polite and professional, not knowing who out of those they’ve met might launch their next level of success in the near future. Burning bridges is always avoided and being your own passionate, storytelling self is embraced.

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Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers