Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Redemptive Films Change Society

RedemptiveMany have asked me to clarify why I’m passionate about creating redemptive stories. The answer rises from the depths of my soul, which I find myself contemplating time and again. The contemplation is not a form of second-guessing, as I’m firm on my position, but it’s about distinguishing the gap between the two.

I’m adamant about society being challenged by story to consider who they are verses who they truly want to be. United Kingdom writer Jeanette Winterson wrote, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

Great motion pictures always start with a character living their normal life, which gets turned upside down and explored from a new vantage point in the second act that fuels contemplation. The audience gets to watch the character explore how he or she faces life and its circumstances.

Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag said, “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

The character is eventually forced into an emotional corner that requires a life-changing decision. Prior to the final moment, we see the character test out a few possible outcomes, but to no prevail. However, by the end of the third act, the character has chosen to live a new normal life going forward.

Art’s ability to force contemplation and change our viewpoint is of great value to society. Being able to create such media empowers the filmmaker to alter how people perceive society and how the people fit within that new world he presents. It’s no wonder those in power seek to master the media.

Frederick_DouglassFrederick Douglass, in his Pictures and Progress essay wrote, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

But why are pictures, or more specifically motion pictures, so moving?

Douglass further wrote, “To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

In other words, there is an innate power within pictures to demonstrate what a better life can look like and how to embrace it from where a person currently stands on any given issue. That is why films start with the character’s normal life, moves him or her into an exploration of the roadblocks in life that force contemplation, and finally resolves with the character choosing a new normal life.

I would venture to say that a motion picture that doesn’t move the audience emotionally from their current place in life to a better one is void of art. The idea that art forces contemplation is an important one, as our society must learn how to change for the better, not to its detriment.

Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren said, “Art is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

Filmmakers, the best of our picture-making community, have been ordained to inspire society’s growth. There are no other animals around who can hold a torch to this appointed responsibility.

In fact, Douglass said, “Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”

Redemptive stories are created for society. Its movies start with the character’s normal life, moves them through demonstrable roadblocks, and forces him or her to make a life altering decision that brings the character into a new normal life, which adds to society’s growth.

Creating stories that make a direct impact on society is what I’m all about. That is where my artistic appetite thrives and that is why I’m passionate about making redemptive films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

3 Types of Skilled Movie Directors

DirectorProfessional movie directors make most movies, but few in the audience can discern the difference between which of the three types of directors made the film they watch. The three types of skilled directors are: Technical; Performance; and, Arts & Craft.

Technical Director

Directors fascinated with the technology know how to capture images that look cool and stir the soul. They are most likely first attracted to splash videos before understanding the subtleties of story-based cinema. He or she works well with the crew, but pretty much leaves the actors alone to do their own thing. Sometimes this relaxed process flows from the director’s inexperience, or ignorance of not knowing how to communicate with the actors.

Performance Director

This type of director may have once been an actor. He or she understands the nuances of performance and the depth it can bring to a story. Instead of focusing on the technology, the director spends time with each actor and determines how to draw out the best performance possible. Regardless of the schedule, time is allotted to capture the best performances through coaching, experimentation, and augmented performance technique.

Arts & Crafts Director

This is the rare breed of director who understands the technical and the performance aspects of film production. He or she takes time to work with the actors and tweak their performances, and to help the crew understand exactly what needs to be captured. The director takes these same skills into post-production as well, where he or she represents both the technical and performance sides of the production team in the editing suite.

Most technical directors gravitate toward television where story decisions are made by the producers, head writers, and show runners. Performance directors lean more toward live stage shows. And, arts and craft directors typically thrive in the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, all too often directors are misplaced and find themselves battling to survive, rather than thriving in their ideal environments.

The best combination is for a director to figure out which type resonates within his or her soul and enter the appropriate market. The same holds true with directors that lean toward specific genres. The sports enthusiast director should think twice about making a Hallmark movie, unless he or she is prepared to stretch him or herself creatively.

I’ve directed numerous genres in my life, but I’ve only won highly competitive awards for adventure films. I’ve also won several awards for my dramas, but they came from lesser competitions. In other words, my best combination where I thrive is directing a fun adventure film that’s salted with dramatic moments and humor. That’s not to say I can’t direct other types of stories, I’ve done numerous successful shows outside of my core expertise. But in all honesty they were never on the same level as when I’m paired to an adventure film.

Do you know your favorite director’s core genre?

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Mentors Breathe Inspiration into Creativity

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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

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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

Rich Culture in a Vacant Industrial Lot

Screen Shot 2017-04-01 at 9.03.30 PMThe richest forms of culture aren’t in the tourist trap destinations, but in the quiet streets where real people live, love and labor. I’ve traveled to over two-dozen countries where I’ve had the opportunity to step away from the tourist attractions and work my way into the backstreets where the nationals let go of their commercial facades and live their normal life.

With the great diversity in the Chicagoland area, I’ve also stumbled upon pockets of people living richly in the heritage of their family culture. Those moments are precious to me because I get a glimpse of what they face in their day-to-day lives.

A couple weeks ago, I finished work in Addison’s industrial area. The fastest way home for the weekend was driving past the older and more run down warehouses. Some of the buildings had boarded up windows and none had seen a fresh coat of paint within the past decade.

I was three blocks from a street that would take me back to my life’s reality when I noticed high-tension power lines overhead. To my left, underneath the lines, was a vacant lot with old rusty semi-trailers flanking the far side. The area looked dormant and unkempt with the exception of the lively soccer game being played by dark olive and lighter skinned Mexicans.

The contrast between the energetic players in the dilapidated surroundings compelled me to stop the car. I hopped out and hustled to the side of the lot with my video camera in hand. The tan and brownish grass perfectly matched the color palette of the rusty trailers. Bare trees and spindly gray bushes helped to confine the outer areas of play. The multi-shades of brown bricks at the neighboring warehouse where spectators watched the game framed my footage.

Within seconds the players and those sitting against the neighboring building turned their heads toward me. I acknowledged everyone with a nod and continued filming. A few guys played harder with the presence of the camera and a couple moved out of frame. There was only one woman on the field, and she displayed a great deal of frustration every time the guys passed the ball around her.

The youngest man was in his late teens and the oldest looked like he was pushing 70 something. The sidelines were filled with family members and injured players from a previous game. A beautiful woman surrounded by a few kids stood up and called out to me, “Would you like to play?” What a generous person to make an offer for my inclusion.

“No thanks, I’m filming,” I said and then turned back to shoot an incredible battle for a loose ball and an attempted score. The ball hit off of the makeshift goal, which looked like dirty yellow pipes bent in the approximate shape of a giant croquet hoop to satisfy any arguments of what was considered in or out of the would-be net area.

When the guys took a beer break, an eight-year-old girl ran up to me. She was inquisitive and filled with joy. I showed her how the camera worked and she took me over to meet her family. It was no surprise to learn that her mother was the one who invited me to participate.

The mom’s nickname was Chellie and she was a beautiful woman with a classy, yet effervescent personality. She spoke English eloquently, while humbly suggesting that her vocabulary was small. Chellie introduced me to her three daughters, son and husband. Her husband, who was injured and not able to play, took care of the little guy.

One of her girls shared an interest in becoming a doctor and our conversation revealed her ability to become whatever she desired in life. Our discussion meandered through several more topics as we all enjoyed getting to know each other.

I was surprised to learn that Chellie was a driver for the same company where her husband, brother and father worked. Based on how well she spoke English and how she carried herself, I would’ve expected to hear about a professional career. But then again, I come across very different than the stereotype of my job.

The best part of the conversation was sharing our cultural differences and similarities. And, thanks to a few Spanish classes at church, I attempted to say a thing or two without murdering Chellie’s language. Thankfully she was gracious and enjoyed practicing English because she speaks Spanish at home and work.

When I asked how often the guys played, she answered, “Every Friday after work.”

“For how long?” I asked.

“They usually play until 9 or 10 at night.”

“It sounds like a ritual.”

“Well, there is no changing it.”

“So, do you go home and make dinner or something?”

“Oh no, I never make dinner of Friday nights,” she said with a smile. “We go out.”

“I suppose that makes sense if you’re here watching them play all night.”

“Oh yes. Nobody here cooks on Friday night.”

My time was running short, so I excused myself and headed toward the car. I thought about returning to the vacant lot in the near future to check in with my new friends. It would give me a chance to share the final short film I cut together.

I hopped in my car, started the engine and reflected back on the various topics we discussed. I had gained a lot by listening to their perspective on life. I also felt a longing in my heart to create a story that could give the kids hope in a future that they currently perceive as bleak.

As I drove away, my heart ached for funding to create stories that might touch the lives of those kids. I need a miracle and I’m waiting for an answer. After all, everyone in the area deserves someone interjecting hope into his or her life.

© 2017 by CJ Powers