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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

False Climax Returns

Sure, it’s been almost a year since I last posted a blog. I was busy. 

There was a point one night last summer when I was working with the composer/sound designer on Stomping Ground out in the Philly burbs then drove into Philly to work with the colorist. I found myself saying “Never again. I will never make another film. I will not put myself through this again.” Was I serious? Was I kidding myself? 

Stomping Ground is finished. In January, twelve years after writing it, eight years since it was optioned for the second time, two and a half years since I shot in 24 hours, the film was finished.

I got into The Philadelphia Independent Film Festival and had a nice crowd show up for the premiere. There was a mix of filmmaker types, some people who had been on the crew and what I like to call “civilians,” people who do not make films but like to watch movies. At times, during the screening, there were gasps from the crowd. I think people liked it.

Camera Op Marty Zinkel, DP Kevin Martin, W/D David J. Greenberg, EP Andrew Karasik

Next week the film screens at The Rough Cut Film Festival and I sit on a panel about micro-budget filmmaking. I discuss the pros and cons of shooting a feature film in 24 hours

Now what? The film has been submitted to about ten festivals, mostly domestic, some international, most in the fall with notifications coming in July, August and September. 

In a best case scenario, a distributor picks it up. What does that mean? Basically,  a distributor buys it from me and has the right to show it in theaters, TV, streaming etc. but, before they do that, I have to deliver not just a film but the film in various formats with promotional materials, maybe subtitles and closed captions etc. 

It’s not enough to make a film these days, anyone can make a film, that’s only half the battle —- not even half. Getting people to see your film is the trick. 

Back to the best case scenario: my film gets distributed, people see the film, people like the film, someone pays me to make another film.

Will any of the above scenario happen? I have no idea. Yes, a fairly well-established distributor took an interest in the film six months ago before it was even finished but what does that mean? Hopefully, they like the film, which raises the question “After all this time, do I even like the film?” Is it possible to be objective? Yes and no.

There are so many immaculately produced, state-of-the-art films out there that have unconvincing stories. What is the point of making a film if it does not have a compelling, believable story? The average cost of a major Hollywood film is somewhere around $80,000,000 and, of that number, the screenplay represents a tiny fraction, usually no more than a few million dollars but, to me, it is the essential ingredient.  I am not saying that screenwriters should be paid more, I am just saying that producers should not make a film until they have an extremely good screenplay. It’s not that hard, get a screenplay, ask the writer to do re-writes and, if you’re not happy with them, get another screenwriter to make revisions. Importantly, do not call the screenplay finished when you’re happy, call if finished when there is a consensus of sound opinions that feel it is a great screenplay. 

Stomping Ground is a reaction to people throwing buckets of money at bad screenplays and turning them into beautifully produced bad movies. Stomping Ground was not beautifully produced, it is a ragged, rough around the edges mess but I think it has a good story. 

In my last blog post, I talked about punk rock and my uneasy relationship with it — I liked a lot of the music and the aesthetic but never felt like dressing the part. I am not a punk. Stomping Ground, however, is what I call a “punk rock production,” because of the sincere emphasis on telling a story with something to say rather than dazzling with technical proficiency.  

A veteran screenwriter told me that he related to it on a deeply personal level. That’s the kind of film I want to make, films that make people say either “I remember when something like this happened to me” or “I can imagine what it would feel like if this happened to me.”

Next? A beautifully produced film with a rich, compelling story and, if not a beautifully produced film, then simply whatever I can make that has a rich, compelling story.