Monday, February 27, 2017

Get Out in the Moonlight

A filmmaker friend recently posted a question on Facebook, asking his fellow African-American friends and collaborators about supporting African-American themed films at the box office. There is an organized movement to in the African American community to encourage as many members to send a message to Hollywood by getting out and seeing African-American themed films on opening weekend. He questioned why much of the community will go out and see anything by Tyler Perry but only a few handfuls will go see Fences. I just had to chime in and ask how many of them had gone to see Moonlight. No responses!

This past weekend, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar  and Get Out, Jordan Peele’s wildly well-received social conscious horror comedy about an African-American man finding himself hunted in an affluent white suburb was number one at the box office. In three months, Moonlight has earned $25,000,000. In one weekend, Get Out earned over $30,000,000.

As far as I can tell, the perception of the public is that Get Out is not an explicitly African-American themed film, which it pretty much is because race actually factors into the plot. The film is being perceived of and marketed as a horror film, which it is. People are flocking to Get Out because people like horror movies and people are staying away from Moonlight because, with its African American and gay themes, it appeals to a niche market and, anecdotally, it appears the audiences are predominantly white.

I saw Get Out because I like horror movies. I liked it, found it rich, intelligent and provocative, all qualities that, as a film teacher, I hold up as the things filmmakers should strive for. Honestly, I felt like I should go see Moonlight because, let’s face it, as an artsy intellectual liberal,  I felt like it was the right thing to do, to expose myself to something other. What I experienced was a rich, intelligent and provocative film that moved me deeply. Get Out is entertaining and smart and I relate to nothing in it because I am neither African American or, hopefully not, racist. On the surface, Moonlight is about the experiences of a poor, gay African-American male, none of which describes me. But it is what is beneath the surface of Moonlight that got me. It is a movie by, for and about anyone who has ever felt that they don’t fit in, that they are alone in the world and that nobody gets them and to that, I raise my hand and say “Me, me, me.”

In my classes I tell students that they should aim to make smart, meaningful films but that, in reality, they could make the greatest film in the world but if it is about dough rising and it is playing in a theater also screening the latest sequel to a remake about things blowing up, very few people are going to go to their film. 

In the end, I guess what I am saying is that it is good thing that Get Out was not released the same weekend as a Tyler Perry film. No, what I am saying is that Get Out and Moonlight are both really good movies and I wish as many people would be open to seeing both. I wondered if this box office disparity is really about race or if it is simply about making movies that lots of people want to see versus making small, quiet personal statements that are only going to attract a brave few.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stomping Ground: An Odyssey in Micro-budget Filmmaking

Recently, I started to watch the latest film by a notorious but fairly well-regarded foreign filmmaker who has been making English language films in the States. The images were stunning, clearly crafted meticulously for optimum style, mood and atmosphere. I hear that this director likes to tell stories with imagery rather than relying on dialogue. Commendable. I turned it off halfway through. Why? Because I was bored, I got it, figured out what he was trying to do and it was not compelling. I am the first to admit that I can be narrow-minded in my approach to film. Is it so bad to want to watch a story about people I care about in a situation that I’m interested in?

Whenever Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, I posted a blog where I ranted about what an empty, meaningless exercise in CGI it was. Check it out:

Is it just me? Would it be so hard to focus on story, plot and character development?

You know where this is going. In 2005, after years of studying the form -writing, production, marketing and distribution — I wrote a textbook micro-budget screenplay. In the summer of 2006, I’d assembled a cast and crew but, just hours before the first day of the shoot, my lead actor quit due to personal reasons. I rescheduled the shoot for a couple month later, the lead actor came back and, the night before the first day of shooting, he broke his foot, then moved to L.A. I recast the whole film, scrambled to replace the original crew and it just never came together. 

All along, a producer in L.A. had been asking me to option the screenplay. I optioned it to a Philly company, it never really progressed, the producer in L.A. asked about optioning it again and the third time was the charm. I sold the rights to the screenplay for two years and was hired to re-write it for six months. Near the end of the two year option, the producer stopped responding to calls and e-mails. It turns out that, if neither party takes action at the end of an option, the producer can sometimes retain the rights for free. With about two weeks to spare and the help of a generous volunteer lawyer, I retained the rights to my screenplay. That was in January 2011.

On July 1, 2013, I met with a bright, daring, ambitious producer and we decided to go ahead with my idea that Stomping Ground could be shot in two days. On September 1, 2013, we wrapped the two day shoot. 

Directing Stomping Ground, 8/31/13

After two and a half draining, demanding, arduous years of post-production, Stomping Ground, was completed in January 2016 and premiered in May at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.

From the start, I knew the film was going to be divisive, mostly because of the way I planned to shoot it and partly because of the story. I wanted to test a theory that a bad screenplay produced well would probably result in a bad film but that a good screenplay produced badly might still yield a good film. I wanted to strip everything away so that all I was left with was a good story and good acting. 

Stomping Ground is a messy film. I always knew it would be. I wanted it to be. The color correction never fully came together. My editor worked wonders with the footage we gave him and it is as choppy and hand-held as I expected it to be. I called it a punk rock production because, like the music, it was about energy, heart and soul rather than technical proficiency.

I shot the film in 24 hours in part because I knew I would not be able to afford the cast and crew for much longer and I also thought it might make for good P.R. If I had it to do over again, I would have shot it in 36 hours.

Stomping Ground has been submitted to quite a few film festivals and has not been accepted by that many. Bottom-line, I have sat in screenings with filmmakers, film lovers and film students who cannot see past the technical flaws. I have seen it with “civilians,” regular folks who just want to sit down to watch a movie and I have heard them gasp, laugh, exclaim “Oh my God!” and I have seen them on the edge of their seats. 

As a student of low-budget indie filmmaking for thirty years, give or take, I saw early films by The Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee then studied them inside out, from the writing phase to shooting to post-production to festival runs, marketing and distribution. I wrote about and reviewed indie films for a website dedicated to the form. In those days, I saw a lot of really bad films that had never gotten picked up for distribution, many of them justifiably so. In some cases, I saw great films that I championed and even helped to get distribution. 

I knew what I was getting into when I started to make Stomping Ground. I knew that it might be one of those films that never got distribution — either because it was so bad or because there was nobody to champion it. I always thought Stomping Ground would find an audience. It has not, yet.

Stomping Ground was released on Amazon today. 

Did I achieve the cinematic acclaim and notoriety I so desperately craved? Not yet. Will I ever? Not counting on it. Will I recoup my investment? Good one!

Am I disappointed? Sure. Defeated? Not exactly. I actually see the Amazon release as a fresh opportunity to get the film out there and part of me just wishes that I had completely sidestepped the festival submission route in the first place. Will there be people who hate the film if they get it on Amazon? Will I get lots of negative reviews? Probably but that is the risk of trying to make art. 

One of the biggest surprises over the course of this whole experience has been the number of close friends and associates who seem to think I cannot handle negative criticism. So many people have asked to see the film, gotten it and never offered me any feedback, as if it simply never happened. I know that they probably do not want to hurt my feelings and I get it but sometimes no response is worse than a negative response. 

If a handful of people see it, like it and write a positive review, I will feel like I have successfully accomplished what I set out to do from the beginning, not pander to conventions, not accommodate for a lack of story by covering it up with state of the art graphic effects but delivering a good, rich, important story performed well by my talented cast. 

Who knows who might see it? I’m optimistic. 

You can see Stomping Ground on Amazon now. If you like it and have something nice to say, I'd appreciate a positive review. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The horror, the horror...

I was recently interviewed about horror movies by a film student:

Please describe who you are and what connection you have to the film world.

I am David J. Greenberg, adjunct screenwriting instructor, Drexel University & University of the Arts. Screenwriter of over 45 screenplays -- 3 produced features (including one as director and writer), 2 produced documentaries, numerous shorts. 

Why would you use film as a medium to tell stories?

I have been attracted to movies since I was a small child, always fascinated by them. When we go to sleep at night, we don't have books or music or sculpture or dance in our heads, we have little movies, dreams that help us process and make sense of the world so I feel like there is this almost innate connection to movies. I don't play any instruments and I love music so making films is as close to making music as I get. 

How do you think films have evolved?

Well, that's a film history question --- sound, color, special effects, the breakdown of the production code etc.  In the beginning, all films were short and now, of course running times have expanded dramatically but, bottom line, films are still about creating meaning with moving pictures.

What advantages and disadvantages do you think films have in telling a story?

Some people don't like to read. Films are visceral, like music, they can elicit a physical response, stir an audience. Film combines elements of literature, painting, photography, theater and music to create a wholly distinct art form. Also, in a book, you are reading words that are supposed to inspire images in your head. The words are symbols to describe what people are seeing, hearing and doing. In film, you create the images for the viewer and they interpret them rather than when a reader sees words on a page, processes them and forms an image. One step in the process has been removed.  

Why would you make a horror film?

On a practical level horror films are frequently inexpensive to produce and often show a significant return on investment. From a screenwriting perspective, horror movies are different from most other movies in a story structure sense, the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to grow or change, they just have to survive -- sometimes by confronting a fear or personal deficit; basically the screenwriter has to establish a situation where scary things might happen and then write those scary things, usually 7-12 pages apart. There is an informal challenge in the horror community to see who can make the scariest film, come up with the best idea etc. 

Why would you watch a horror film and how does it make you feel?

I like horror films on a number of levels. I like a visceral jolt. In my day to day life, I am rarely scared for my life so watching horror films is a way to experience sensations that I do not expect to experience every day.  I like to examine the characters in horror films and see how they find themselves in the horrific situations they find themselves in.

What goes into making a horror film?

Technological production know-how, good story. 

What aspects of making horror films do you like or dislike?

I don't like gore, don't find it scary. I like tension and suspense. 

 Why do you think as a filmmaker people would want to watch something that scares them?

See above but to reiterate, most people do not go through life experiencing fear for their lives and watching these films can give audiences a chance to experience these feelings in a safe environment -- it's sort of like riding a roller coaster. 

What do you think of scary stories and how they shape our lives?

Horror films for all of their gore and sometimes decadence, are often very moralistic --- don't sleep around, don't do drugs, don't mess with the dead etc., extreme cautionary tales. On the flip side, I sometimes worry that horror films and action films can desensitize audiences to violence, making it too easy to forget that that the characters we see dying are people with hopes and dreams, parents, siblings and friends.

Has a horror film effected you in your personal or professional life, and how?

I think the recent Australian horror film "The Babadook" was about parenthood and, specifically, parenting an atypical or special needs child, which I deeply related to. 

What makes a good horror film?

Like any film, a good story that people can relate to. As someone who writes screenplays, including a high number of horror screenplays, I always look for opportunities to push my agenda, slip in social commentary and have frequently done so. A fresh spin on genre conventions is usually welcome.

How did the horror film industry evolve and why do you think it was created?

Horror films have been around almost since the very beginning of film. People have always liked spooky, creepy stories so it seemed a natural for the movies. Most recently, the advent of more accessible technology has made it more and more possible for more and more people to make their own films. I also think that, perhaps more than any other genre of film, there is a large, enthusiastic sub-culture of horror movie fans who actively support little independent films and are often more forgiving of technical and narrative shortcomings, also they seem more receptive to shorter features, 75-80 minutes long. 

Anything additional you would like to say?

Horror films are not for everyone but I like them as both an entertainment form and as a viable production option for first time filmmakers. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Antibirth": Who Says It's Bad To Be Unique?

                                                                                          Before the screening of his film “Antibirth” writer-director Danny Perez told the nearly packed theater at International House a story about trying to make it in L.A. after moving from Philly. He recalls driving to an agent’s office for a meeting and, along the way, seeing all of the billboards for upcoming new movies and TV shows — a big screen adaptation of 80’s small screen hit “McGyver” some movie where Kevin Spacey plays a man trapped in the body of a cat.

“Danny, you’re unique” said the agent, who had already seen “Antibirth.” 
Somewhat perplexed by the agent’s somber delivery, Perez asked “That’s a good thing, right?”  
“No, Danny, that’s a bad thing.”

“Antibirth” might be called unique even though it so reverently pays homage to the cult classics of the 80’s that it feels oddly familiar even though Perez demonstrates enough vision to put a fresh, sometimes artsy spin on tradition. It is his own film, with its own vibe, its own rules, rebellious, anarchistic and Perez comes off as a filmmaker completely in control, determinedly confident in his vision.

The film is not for everyone. In fact, it is probably not for most people. Natasha Lyonne throws herself full force into her performance as an unabashed hardcore small town party girl — though, her character Lou, now well into being a thirtysomething, is long past party-girlhood and more into something resembling a sloppy skid-row drunk. After blacking out during an all night party in an abandoned warehouse, Lou starts feeling strange and comes to realize that she might be pregnant even though she has no recollection of hooking up with anyone. Needless to say, peeling skin, giant blisters full of fluid and a rapidly expanding mid-section soon indicate that pregnancy might be the least of her concerns. What follows is by turns hilarious and disgusting, all over the place narratively, frequently beautiful to look at and ultimately pretty compelling. Perez has things on his mind, it’s not just about empty spectacle, he comes off as an unpretentious funny, intelligent who sees things in the world —- “people filling themselves with toxicity” — and wants to say something about it.    

Watching it, I felt like I was witnessing the birth of a cult classic, maybe a post-modern neo cult classic but definitely a film that will find a small but passionate audience. That works for me. Maybe being “unique” is not such a bad thing. Sure, moving forward, finding representation, financing and distribution is still going to be hard but it seems like that is the way it is for anyone not making a $150,000,000 sequel to a tentpole blockbuster. I am both inspired to continue trying to do what I am trying to do and also really looking forward to Danny Perez’ next film. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Thinking At Least Twice about "Don't Think Twice"

There is one scene in comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new film Don’t Think Twice that really sums it up for me. The members of a struggling NYC improv comedy troupe gather to watch the long running comedy sketch show “Weekend Live” and stare at the screen with dead eyes and blank expressions either fueled or dulled by overwhelming sense of “that should be me on this show, I could do it so much better.”

Don't Think Twice, has some chuckles but it's really a bittersweet drama about an improv comedy troupe in NYC and what happens when one of the members gets a shot at a job on a show like "Saturday Night Live." It's about ambition but it has a dark undertone about jealousy, bitterness and resentment toward one time friends whose potential success might far eclipse your own. 

I know people who have been nominated for Oscars, worked with Quentin Tarantino and Bryan Singer, have $4,000,000 summer houses. I have seen where my best friend from film school lives — with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. Sometimes I wish I could resent these people but I can’t because I know all of them paid their dues, did their time in the trenches and worked their way up to where they are now. But, to be completely honest, I don’t always feel so good about it. 

A few weeks ago, I saw that there was a movie in theatrical release that was directed by someone I was hired to replace as director after he was arrested and jailed. Now, I am all for rehabilitation and redemption and I guess it’s good to know that this guy caught a break, is hopefully doing well, got back to doing his thing and is having some success. Okay, at the risk of being totally self-serving, when do I get a break? Do I need to follow his lead, commit a heinous crime and hit bottom in order to bounce back? I know I cling to this illusion that nice guys can finish first but that those images are getting fuzzier in my mind.

A few months ago, a mystery novelist friend of mine brought up the idea of working on a screenplay together. We talked about it, he came up with the story and is patiently waiting for me to turn it into a screenplay. A couple weeks ago, a friend contacted me to say that he has a crew and equipment ready to make a feature in Tulsa but he needs a screenplay and wanted to know if I have anything sitting around. I pitched him a couple ideas, he liked both, we chose one and now I am scrambling to bust it out. Last night, a filmmaker contacted me on Instagram to say that he’d been hired to write and direct a film, that he has the story but is not good at writing dialogue so he asked if I was interested in doing it. 

So, for now, it’s back to the trenches and tightening my grasp on hope.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

False Climax meets Diarrhea-Man


About a month ago, a student came into class, plopped down and said to me, “I don’t know how you write screenplays for a living, it’s so hard.”

First, yes, it is hard to make a living as a screenwriter and, to be completely forthright, to whatever degree I am making a living, I am making it by teaching screenwriting right now. Sure, every now and then, I get a gig but, for the past few years, I have been focused on Stomping Ground and teaching. 

I had gotten to a point where I was looking for writing jobs less and less and work was coming to me more and more —- nothing fancy, nothing I was putting my kids through college on but I was, in fact, getting hired (and, usually, paid) to write screenplays.

Even though I have a couple projects due to some producer-friends, I am slowly getting back into the hunting for gigs routine. 

Yesterday, I saw an ad:

Screenwriter needed ASAP for Diarrhea-Man Feature (Hollywood)

I own the rights to the original 1970's Diarrhea-Man character and need help writing the screenplay. Finances have been secured to produce the film starting this October, however I need to have a finished/polished shooting script to be approved by investors weeks from today. Looking for an experienced screenwriter capable of turning out a 1st draft ASAP as in the next week and a half. If you are a screenwriter capable of producing strong action oriented structure while managing a strict deadline, I'd love to talk to you. Also, massive points if you are at all familiar with the Diarrhea-Man universe.

I will be the first to admit that “massive points” were not in the cards for me as I am not at all “familiar with the Diarrhea-Man universe.” 

So, maybe I should pass on this gig. 

“Finances have been secured…” should suggest that there is some money to pay the screenwriter for the first draft that needs to be delivered in a week and a half. “Should” suggest. In my experience, “finances” frequently refers to what someone plans to pay the DP, cast, crew and craft services once you deliver the screenplay for free, the film gets produced, distributed, maybe makes some money and then they decide to throw you a bone for your trouble, if they remember. 

A gig is a gig, right? I dipped into “the Diarrhea-Man universe” for a little while to check it out and decided, you know what, not for me, even if it does actually pay. However, I’m not exactly in the position to turn down a paying gig. I think I have done it once or twice. In one case, it was writing the sequel for the classic worst-film-ever-made candidate Birdemic, I backed off after being initially interested. 

So, I went back and forth on whether or not to even apply for the job. Ultimately, I thought “Who am I to not apply for a screenwriting job?”  I applied.

I’m pretty sure that these issues were not what my student was talking about when she said “Screenwriting is so hard.” If she only knew.

So is it? Maybe it is. I don’t know. Screenwriting is just what I do. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

False Climax meets Rough-Cut

This weekend, Stomping Ground screens at the exceptionally cool Rough-Cut Film Fest. Following the screening, I give a presentation on micro-budget filmmaking the relative pros and cons of shooting my film in 24 hours.

Here are the details:

FYI (FWIW?), here is the complete list of questions a columnist recently asked me and answers I gave:

What was it like working on the set of "Pet Sematary?"
I started work on "Pet Semetary" two days after finishing work on a low-budget independent film so the experience of going from a scrappy $1,000,000 production to a major studio production with a budget of $20,000,000 was pretty dramatic. 

I went out and bought much of the wood for this well-known set
Zelda's infamous bedroom. I've known a number of people who got nightmares from this scene.
They offered to let me keep the bed after wrapping but it was bigger than my bedroom at the time and, being a made up size, I don't know where I would have found a mattress and sheets for it. 
If it looks like there is a figuring creeping up behind me, it's because there is. All Stephen King sets are haunted, after awhile you just get used to it. 

I worked for no money on a small film where I worked in every department on the crew, did everything from washing the producer's car to being assistant cameraman, to being actor Vincent D'Onofrio's body double (even though he's about a foot taller than me) once spending 45 hours straight on set. 

Then I went to a big Hollywood production where I had one job, working in the set construction department, did the same thing every day, had the same hours every day and made really good money. 

Ultimately, it was a really important experience because I got to compare the ridiculous excess of a big movie with the "every penny counts" philosophy of an indie film. I was really turned off by the amount of waste that I saw on the big film and I resolved to, if given the chance, only make fiscally responsible films, only use what I need and not waste anything. 

Do you still teach at Drexel and UArts?
I still teach at Drexel and University of the Arts -- usually a mix of Introduction To Screenwriting, Intermediate Screenwriting, Writing The Short Film and Screenplay Story Development.

Bonnie & Clyde: Lovers on the Run, documentary, 60 mins, 2015

Have you written any documentaries since "Journey Into The Holocaust?"
In 2011, I wrote "Bonnie & Clyde: Lovers On The Run," a documentary that I think had some kind of release in 2015. I really only helped out with rewriting some of the narration on the Holocaust film so my involvement was pretty minimal.

Are you finished with post-production of "Stomping Ground?"
I shot the film over Labor Day weekend in 2013 and finally post-production this past January.

Can you say what "Stomping Ground" is about?
"Stomping Ground" is a gritty, intense coming-of-age drama about four tough young buddies whose "day off" at their childhood hangout deep in Fairmount Park turns suddenly violent, leaving them not just on the run from the police and a vicious gang but also forced to confront a moral dilemma and, ultimately, a dark secret that threatens their friendship and their lives.  

Mike, Chris, Bobby & Joe at their old Stomping Ground

Will you be submitting it to film festivals?
"Stomping Ground" will premiere at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival on May 7. I have already submitted it to some pretty high profile festivals and will hear back over the but I have a list of some other reputable festivals I plan to submit to.

Do you have any other projects in the works?
I am helping a friend, another local filmmaker, produce his bio-pic of controversial Philly civil rights activist Cecil B. Moore. It's the best screenplay I've read in years and, if we can pull it off the way we want to, it will be a great film, not at all a typical biography.

Who are your favorite filmmakers and why?
I like Orson Welles because few filmmakers have had such a full understanding of the form of motion pictures, how to utilize all elements of it from framing and composition to sound and set design. I like Martin Scorsese for many of the same reasons, he understands that a film is like a piece of music, that it has to have highs and lows. There are too many to list. 

What are your favorite films of all time?
It's almost a cliche for filmmakers of my generation but I have to say that "Jaws" is one of the films that made me want to become a filmmaker. At first, of course, it was the sheer visceral power of the adventure and scares that appealed to me but, even just last week, I was thinking that it is really the camaraderie between the three main characters and that, dare I say, it is something of study in class -- a working class man of nature, a middle class civil servant and an upper class scientist who all have to put aside their differences and personal grudges to work together. 

The other film that made me want to become a filmmaker was Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" which I got to see on a big screen when I was 12 and loved it. 

Orson Welles "Touch Of Evil" sometimes makes me cry because it is so good and because, behind the scenes, he was so down and out, so broken -- a man who was on the cover of Time Magazine at age 21 now almost completely forgotten at age 42, just had to show up and make a simple little film but he couldn't do it, he had to turn it into art. 

What was the hardest thing you ever had to do?
Making "Stomping Ground" was pretty tough. Everyone tells you that it can be brutal to make a film, that it can push you to the limits of any number of things. I remember, one night over the summer, I was leaving the recording studio in the suburbs where we were doing the sound effects and music then driving downtown to work with the colorist and I was so stressed that I was saying to myself "Never again! I will never put myself through this and make another film!"

What is the best advice you ever received?
Don't go to bed with dishes in the sink and never leave the house with the bed unmade. 

Which talent that you do not have would you most like to have? Why?
I wish I could sing and play an instrument. I love music and it frustrates me that I cannot make music. That said, to me, film is music and, when I am writing a screenplay, I feel that I am composing music.

What is your most treasured possession?
I try to not treasure material possessions but, off the top of my head, I have Steve Martin's autograph and he is someone who has inspired me since I was young.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Somewhere that is not that far from both woods/mountains and a beach with a vibrant cultural scene in between. 

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I don't think I have any spare time. When teaching, I have up to 50 screenplays a week to grade. When I finish grading, I usually have a screenplay that I am supposed to be writing for someone else. If I have time, I like to watch movies.

What is your most impressive characteristic?
I like to think that I am nice most of the time. Long ago, I decided that I wanted to make someone else laugh every day.

If you could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, who would it be?                                    I'd probably like to sit and talk about movies with some of my favorite filmmakers: Scorsese, Spielberg -- guys who grew up like me, movie geeks. They're still around. If I could fantasize, I would love to go back in time and meet my ancestors, see how they lived, what they were like etc.