Friday, December 20, 2013

"Captain Phillips" reassures me; Advice to a young filmmaker


I read another "Best Films of 2013" list today. I am embarrassed to say how few of the films I have seen. Of course, most of the films on the list that I really want to see don't start coming out until today, December 20th, and I plan to see American Hustle tonight. The last film that I saw in the theater was also one of the best I saw this year: Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. The film hit me like the best films do: in the gut. The film is literally breathtaking in the sense that it is so gripping that I actually felt like I was holding my breath, conserving oxygen in case I needed it later.

However, besides the experience of enjoying an incredibly well-made film, seeing it had another effect on me. I went to the film almost exactly one month after shooting Stomping Ground. Years ago, when Stomping Ground was still called Aftermath, it was optioned by a producer in L.A. and, against my better judgement/common sense, I allowed myself to briefly fantasize about it winding up in the hands of Paul Greengrass. I was familiar with his multi-camera, gritty documentary-style approach to production from his films Bloody Sunday, the two Bourne films, United 93 and Green Zone and thought that, if there's a director in Hollywood who could do what imagine doing with this screenplay, it is Paul Greengrass.

I read an article about Tom Hanks and the making of the film that said  “...The British director rehearses at length and then shoots long, unblocked scenes with hand-held cameras...... Hanks found that he relished the process, allowing him to focus purely on behavior: "We didn't have to worry about lights or marks, particularly. The scene just took us every place that the scene took us," says Hanks. " I said, ' Look, I know how movies are made — the shots and the thing and the storyboards and all that kind of stuff. I know that. But how does he do this?'"

In no way, am I suggesting that I am in the same league as this guy but I am ever more encouraged by him and reassured that we took the same approach to making Stomping Ground.

Advice to a Young Filmmaker

I read screenplays all the time. I grade them for students, I read them for filmmaker friends who come to me for advice. From time to time, someone I do not know reaches out to me and asks me to read a screenplay for them or to ask for suggestions on how to get into film production.

Recently, a stranger asked me to read a screenplay for a short film that they want to make. The guy can write and the film would be really cool if he could make it. The project involves many locations (from city to beach, east coast to west coast), lots of characters, stunts and special effects. So, like many of the screenplays I read, the “if he could make it” factor is where a lot of beginning filmmakers struggle and I offered him the following advice:

I came to screenwriting after film school and working on the crews of movies, music videos, infomercials etc. so, for better or worse, I write with production in mind. I want people to pick up my screenplays and say “I can make this film.”

The bottom-line with your screenplay is the bottom-line. As-is, I think it would be expensive and complicated to produce. Now someone else might read it and jump at the chance to take on this challenge. My orientation has been towards really simple, micro-budget films because, of course, they don't cost that much to make and they don't cost so much to make because they usually involve small casts and few locations.

Unless you have very deep pockets, have connections to investors or are really good at fundraising, the big trick to film-making from my perspective is coming up with a screenplay that you can actually make, that is not going to require a lot of set-ups in different places, complicated effects or stunts and a cast and crew of thousands, hundreds or even dozens.

It doesn't cost much to write a screenplay but a screenplay on its own is nothing ---- it's like writing a symphony but not having an orchestra to perform it.  Now, some people write screenplays with the intention of trying to beat the odds, break into Hollywood by selling it to a major studio. Hollywood receives about 15,000 "spec" screenplays in the mail every year ---- of which fewer than 25 ever get made. With today's technology, anyone can make a film and plenty of people are trying to make films. I have seen plenty of people start films and not be able to finish them. I have seen some great films made with simple, inexpensive equipment and I have seen a lot of really bad films. The point here is to know what you’re doing as well as you can before you actually go out and try to do it.

So my advice would be to do what you are doing, get out into the great Philly film community, meet people, offer to work on their films, make connections, get hands-on experience and build up a network of people who can help you with your stuff.