Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Book review: "Rebel Without a Crew"

The best part of my recent holiday at Victor Harbor was the fact that I finally got to read Robert Rodriguez's book, Rebel Without a Crew. It's been around since 1995 and can be found on most recommended reading lists for filmmakers. 

These days, Rodriguez is best known for the four Spy Kids films, his relationship with Rose McGowan, the fact he still lives in Austin Texas, and his filmmaking association with Quentin Tarantino

Rebel Without a Crew is based on a journal Rodriguez kept from 1991 to 1993, the period during which he planned, made, sold, and publicised his first feature film, El Mariachi (1993). 

Although the book deals with his adventures as a filmmaker, it has a bit to say to writers.  
I was never big on writing scripts. I have read many times that the best way to learn to write scripts is to actually sit down and write two full scripts and after you're done you should throw them away. You'll learn a lot by doing those first two but they'll be awful, so after you write them you should throw them away and start writing your real script.
The idea didn't appeal to Rodriguez. He had made about thirty short films at that point, starting from when he was twelve. He was now twenty-three. He needed motivation to write a script and the idea of tossing his work away afterward didn't fill him with enthusiasm.
It suddenly hit me: Instead of writing two scripts and throwing them away afterwards, why not just take the scripts and make them for really low budgets? That way while you're practicing your writing skills you can also practice your filmmaking skills. That's what I decided to do with El Mariachi. I would write two scripts, both about the same character, but I would film them on a low, low budget all by myself. Then I would sell them to the Spanish video market where no one in the movie business would see them if they were no good, so it was almost like throwing them away, only I would get paid for them.
He was inventing a film school with just one pupil, himself. His teachers would be his own experiences, mistakes, problems and solutions, and the burgeoning Spanish-language video market would return him his investment. 
I went on to write the first Mariachi in three weeks. It's amazing how quickly ideas come to you for a script when you're going to be actually making the movie in a few months, not just writing for writing's sake.

Where this story gets interesting is with his fund-raising methods. Robert Rodriguez has been a human lab rat four times. Which is to say, he voluntarily submitted to being locked up in a pharmaceutical drug testing facility and experimented on, in return for hard cash.
When it came time for me to make El Mariachi, I needed someplace quiet to write and earn money at the same time. Naturally the research hospital fit the bill. I knew that if I checked in for a monthlong drug study I could clear about $3,000, with room and board paid for, and have plenty of time to kick back and write my script. ...  In my mind I simply imagined that I was getting paid to write a script.
The reality wasn't that simple, but I'll leave it for you to read for yourself. The next stage, the story of how he filmed a feature film, with minimal assistance, makes the book worth reading on its own, but I will skip over that as well. 


Once the film was finished, Rodriguez went to Los Angeles in the hope of selling El Mariachi to one of the Spanish language film distributors. It is difficult to believe, but after making thirty short films and his first feature film, Rodriguez had still never seen a professional screenplay.
On our way back to the apartment we stopped by the Hollywood Book Store and I bought the script to Road Warrior [better known to Australians as Mad Max 2] so I can have something to read. My script for El Mariachi was completely mis-formatted, which is why my thirty-five-page script ended up being a ninety-minute movie.
The section of the book covering his dealings with various agents and Hollywood studios is a real eye-opener as well. That is followed by his triumphant tour of the Film Festivals, a section called 'The Robert Rodriguez Ten-Minute Film Course,' and a copy of the original script for El Mariachi.

Rebel Without a Crew is a highly readable, informative and inspiring book. Take a look at it sometime.

First posted:  21 April 2012

Monday, 28 December 2015

Star Wars Minus Star Wars

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Star Wars. Its arrival in theaters on May 25th 1977 marked the end of one chapter in film history and the beginning of another. It’s a hinge on which film history swings. Upon its release, critic Pauline Kael derided the film as “an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip… an epic without a dream” 

Twenty years after its release critic Roger Ebert remarked that the film “colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories.”

They’re both right. Star Wars succeeded because of its roots in film history and mythology, and its influence over generations of filmmakers can be felt in countless works that came after it. For better or worse, Star Wars engulfs the past and future of moviemaking. To prove that point, here’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope ... told without using a single image or sound from Star Wars.



Sunday, 27 December 2015

Buster Keaton - The Art of the Gag

Tony Zhou is back with some visual wisdom.
Before Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, before Chuck Jones and Jackie Chan, there was Buster Keaton, one of the founding fathers of visual comedy. And nearly 100 years after he first appeared onscreen, we’re still learning from him. Today, I’d like to talk about the artistry (and the thinking) behind his gags. Press the CC button to see the names of the films.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Intro - Martin Scorsese - A Personal Journey Through American Movies

Using clips from more than 300 of the greatest movies ever made, this series explores film history and American culture through the eyes of over 150 Hollywood insiders, including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Sydney Pollack, Jim Jarmusch, Julie Dash, the Coen brothers, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Jane Russell, Errol Morris, Walter Murch, Nora Ephron, and Quentin Tarantino.

This series is a survey of the American film industry as an art form, as an industry, and as a system of representation and communication. It explores how Hollywood films work technically, aesthetically, and culturally to reinforce and challenge America’s national self-image.

Produced by the New York Center for Visual History in association with KCET/Los Angeles and the BBC, 1995.

Movie clips included in this video are as follows:
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) - Vincente Minnelli
Duel in the Sun (1946) - King Vidor
The Naked Kiss (1964) - Samuel Fuller
Murder By Contract (1958) - Irving Lerner
The Red House (1947) - Delmer Daves
The Phenix City Story (1955) - Phil Karlson
Sullivan's Travels (1945) - Preston Sturges



Friday, 25 December 2015

If Santa Chilled With Two Jews On Xmas Eve

The funny Xmas pickings on YouTube are low-to-nonexistent this year, apart from blokes dressing up as Santa and screaming at their kids (but you get enough of that at home...) Here's one that is, at least, an interesting idea.


Then, of course, there's this one.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

The Naughty List

Ever wonder what happens to the intel Santa Claus collects when deciding if you’ve been good or bad? Who has access to all your secrets? All that data? Santa has become too powerful, so a young elf decides to risk his life by leaking the Naughty List to the world. Alisha Brophy & Scott Miles have the inside story. 


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Interview with Diane Drake

Diane Drake is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who also teaches screenwriting at the UCLA Extension Writers' program. She is best known for writing Only You (1994) and What Women Want (2000).
   I first came across her name a few years ago when a friend sent me a copy of her UCLA screenwriting Course Outline that he’d found online. I read it and immediately wanted to do that course, but couldn’t afford the travel costs. Years later, when I got the chance to ask her a few questions, I jumped at the opportunity.
________________________________________________________________________

Where were you born, and grow up?

I was born and grew up in Los Angelesthe San Fernando Valley, to be specific, but will confess I have done my best to lose the accent. I think I may have succeeded as I was recently traveling in New Zealand and Australia (which I loved, btw), and was told I sounded Canadian, somission accomplished. 
   My parents were musicians, (mom was a singer and dad was a saxophone player), and my brother was a professional drummer for a long time. Alas, I didn’t inherit the musical gene, so had to go another way.  

What school did you go to

I went to the University of California, San Diego. My plan was to study either Marine Biology or Communications/Visual Arts. Once I got there, I found out the Marine Biology program was for grad students onlyhence, Communications/Visual Arts. 

*  When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

Like most everybody, I had some interest in films and stories growing up. As a kid, I specifically remember watching and being fascinated by the film Hud and also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (hm, perhaps I had more of an interest in Paul Newman?). But I didn’t, and honestly still don’t, have the great penchant for old movies that many of my peers did and do. I was generally more interested in being active, out doing things rather than being inside watching movies. 
   After graduating from college, though, I suddenly became  interested in literature. I graduated and didn’t know what to do with my Communications degree, so like a lot of people at the time, for lack of anything better and in an effort to be “practical”, I went to graduate school to get an MBA. I managed one tortuous semester. I had an epiphany one day in my accounting class where it suddenly struck me that not only did I hate this, but that if I somehow stuck with it, my degree would qualify me to do it for the rest of my life. That was that. I quit grad school (and spent years paying off just one semester’s worth of loans), but it was definitely the right decision. 
   The other thing that happened while I was ostensibly getting my MBA, and trying to avoid any and all classwork associated with it, was that I decided I needed to know more about classic literature and art. When people referred to For Whom the Bell Tolls, or The Grapes of Wrath, or any number of other classic novels I’d missed in school, I felt ignorant and wanted to know what they were talking about. 
   After I quit grad school, I got a job working as a secretary for the Warner Cable Company. At the same time, I enrolled in a night class in Art History, and started my own sort of self- directed “course” in the classics, reading maybe around a hundred of the books you always hear aboutDickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Melville, Hemingway, etc., etc. It was incredibly eye-opening for me, richly rewarding, and ultimately proved quite valuable.


What was your first paying job?

While I was still in high school, I sold hot dogs at Magic Mountain (an amusement park). I worked in the “Mini-Bar” and while the job had its drawbacks (I still shudder at the memory of cleaning the grill), the man who hired me suggested that particular job because the other girls working there happened to be really funny and fun. He was right. I wish I knew where they are now, a couple of them were hilarious. Maybe one is now Tina Fey?

What was your first job in the movie business?

Technically, it wasn’t really the movie business, but close enough. While I was in grad school the only thing that really interested me was a report I’d done on the Warner Co., which at the time also owned Ralph Lauren and a number of other brands, including what was then called “Warner/Amex Cable” which had MTV, Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel. I thought the company sounded interesting, so I sent them a letter expressing my interest in working for them. A woman in marketing was looking for a secretary and I got the job. It wasn’t a studio, but the building was basically on the Universal Studios lot (we could eat at the commissary, etc.) and got me that much closer to the business. Not long thereafter my boss was fired and I was fired (this was to happen to me a number of timesit’s showbiz), but it was a start.

*  How did you get to be a Vice President of Creative Affairs for Sydney Pollack?

After the Warner Cable job, I managed to get a job as an assistant in the Legal department at Columbia Pictures. It was my first job actually on a studio lot, and it was while working there that I discovered there existed such a job as a “reader”, people who are paid to read scripts all day long. Also, on that job I met a number of other people working as secretaries, one of whom a few years later went on to work for Sydney Pollack.
   Anyway, this reader position sounded like a dream job to me at the time, and while I wasn’t able to land that job at Columbia, after a stint working for a producer at Fox, I managed to get a job as a reader/assistant to a Vice President working at an independent production and financing company called Producers Sales Organization (PSO). Not too long thereafter, my boss was fired, but this time I was promoted. Thus I had my first executive job as Acquisitions Director, until someone else was brought in over me, and I was fired again. 

Only You: And the slipper fits...
   After that, I read for a number of different companies and producers including PBS/American Playhouse. It paid little, but it was great training, both in terms of what to do and what not to do. And then one day I got a call from a friend of the friend I’d mentioned earlier from Columbia Pictures, who’d gone on to work for Sydney, telling me she’d heard he was looking for a story editor. This was the dream job of all dream jobs. 
   I had to do sample coverage (an evaluation like a book report) on five or so scripts, and later heard that Sydney had picked out three candidates from those samples, and I was one of the three. My friend who was then his secretary had not yet told him she knew me, but at that point, I believe she did. Anyway, I wound up being hired by the president of his company at that time, a great guy named Mark Rosenberg. I was the happiest girl in the world to get that job. It was an extraordinary experience. 
   Later, I was promoted to Vice President of Creative Affairs.

*  What did you learn from working with Sydney Pollack?

I learned so much from Sydney, and truly don’t think I’d have ever been able to succeed as a writer without that experience. He was just such an incredibly bright, talented and driven man. He was a perfectionist and had an amazing work ethic, and was pretty much always the smartest guy in the room. He was also, as you can imagine, demanding and intense. The job was a challenge, but most of the time in a terrific and exciting way.  
 
* You’ve had an unusual career in that you were a movie executive before you took up writing. Most people go the other way. What impelled you to take on the precarious life of a writer

I guess I was feeling burned out on reading other people’s material at the time, and feeling like, if I knew so much, why didn’t I put my money where my mouth was? The job of a creative executive and the hours involved can be quite grueling. And yet I’d look around at some of the writers who were working on projects for Sydney, and this one was off on a cruise to South America, and another was on location with a filmit just seemed like a much more free and potentially rewarding life. Plus, this was back in the heyday of spec scripts selling for boatloads of money, and Sydneygreat a guy as he waswas, shall we say, frugal. Despite my title, I really wasn’t making much money there, and was kind of struggling, so having already spent quite a number of years analyzing material, I figured I owed myself a shot.
   That said, let me just state the obviousit’s a whole heck of a lot easier to sit on the sidelines and “critique” the work of others than it is to face the blank page yourself. A LOT easier.

Only You: You're going to let a few little letters keep us apart?
*  What was your first spec script about?

It was called Dog Meets Catabout a dog and a cat who are forced to live together and don’t want to. It didn’t sell, but it did get me an agent, and a small assignment job to write a treatment, which got me into the Writers Guild. So, looking back, that little script, written in a few months time, at night, when I was still working for Sydney, served me well. 

* That script was never produced, but it helped you get a writing assignment from Hanna-Barbera. What came out of your time with them?

Not a lot in terms of a movie. It was an assignment to adapt The Prince and the Pauper with dogs. I don’t think the project was ever made, but for me it was a great deal in that it got me into the writers guild, got me health insurance, and (as it paid $25,000) it bought me the time to write my second script, Only You

* Only You was the first script you sold. How did the success of that movie change your life and career?

Basically, it gave me a career (and a lot of money). I went from being a struggling writer, a few thousand dollars in debt, to having a career. It was an extraordinary, almost out-of-body, experience. After my agent and lawyer told me the news that they’d closed the deal for $1 million, I remember waking up the following morning and walking in something of a daze to the local 7/11 to buy the trade papers. And there it was, in black and white, on the front cover of The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, and I remember thinking two things: First, “Thank goodness I hadn’t just dreamed it all, and second, “Well, they’re going to have to pay me now. Now that it’s been printed in the paper.” 

Only You: Mr Wright, in his socks...
* You worked with the director, Norman Jewison, on "Only You" for about six months before filming. What did you learn from him?

Norman is so lovely, and smart, and funnyhe’s a real charmer, and it was a joy and a thrill to work with him. He did kind of trick me, though, I realized after the fact. The way we’d work was I’d go to his office, trusty copy of my script in hand. And he’d sit at his desk and read aloud from his copy. If he didn’t like the way a scene was working (I later realized), he’d read it badly. He, like Sydney Pollack, started as an actor. A lot of what was in the original script was a little silly and slapstick-y and I think he wanted to minimize those elements, so he would read those scenes badly, and I’d think, “Oh good God, yes, we MUST get rid of that.”
Diane Drake at Franco Zefferelli's villa. 1993.
   Ultimately, though, I do think a little of the breezinessa tonal thing that told you the whole thing was supposed to be a larksomehow got a bit lost along the way. Perhaps more owing to the way Marisa Tomei chose to play it, which was a bit more “dramatic” than what I’d imagined. Not unusual, I’m afraid, from script to screen, for things to change substantially, and the original writer to not have much say about it. Still, it was an extraordinary experience, and I want to add that Robert Downey, Jr. is not only one of the most brilliantly talented, but also one of the most gracious and nicest people I’ve ever met in Hollywood. Simply lovely.  

Only You could have been set anywhere. Why was it set mostly in Italy?

I knew by virtue of the nature of the story that it had to go somewhere. It (and she), had to literally take off. And I wasn’t interested in going from, say, L.A. to New York. I’d been to Italy a few years earlier, fell in love with it, and wanted to return, so when I asked myself where I wanted to go, that was the obvious answer. Plus, it’s just by nature such a romantic and beautiful place, and it hadn’t been done to death at that point. The only time we’d recently seen a romanticized Italy on the big screen was in more art-house indie fare like Enchanted April or Cinema Paradiso. (This was pre-Under the Tuscan Sun, etc.)  

Positano. Photo taken by Diane Drake in 1993, during filming of 'Only You.'
   At the time a good writer friend of mine, whose advice I highly respected, said to me, “It’s a good script, but don’t set it in Italy.” When I asked him why not, he said, “Because if you set it in Italy, it becomes a movie about Italy.” As much as I trusted him and his opinions, I knew he was wrong about that, and thank goodness I didn’t listen and stuck to my original plan, as not only did I get a great trip to Italy out of it, but I’m convinced that the setting contributed to the movie’s success and longevity in DVD. Turns out a lot of people like taking a vicarious trip to Italy as much as I did.  

*  The theme of Only You is stated explicitly in writing. “Faith involves risk.” Both the woman Faith, and faith that your choices are right (Wright) for you. Do you recommend that approach to theme for new writers?

Only You: Faith involves risk, and You make your own destiny.
Actually, not to be contrary, but to me the theme is more what the fortune teller tells Faith in a moment of conscience, “The truth is, you make your own destiny. Don’t wait for it to come to you.” I think that’s something I was wrestling with at the time, working for Sydney, but feeling like I wanted to do more, and knowing it was up to me to take the risk and do it.   

*  What Women Want was an enormously successful movie. It was your idea, but other people took writing credit on that film. What happened there?

What Women Want: Thanks for all your great ideas...
Let’s just sayit’s complicated. The movie was based on my original idea and my original spec screenplay which predated the involvement of anyone else. I like to work with ideas which I consider universal fantasies, and when I came up with that one, I knew I’d hit on something special. Little did I know how ironic it would ultimately be that I created a story about a character who steals and takes credit for someone else’s ideas. As far as the final credits are concerned, I felt the Writers Guild arbitration was mishandled, but I know I’m not the first writer to feel this way, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. On the plus side, my name is on the film, it was a huge success, and I got paid handsomely. Glass half full.   
   Did I learn any lessons? I always advise any writer to register his or her material both with the Guild and (in the US) with the US Office of Copyright. It won’t keep people from stealing from you, but at least you’ll hopefully have some recourse if it happens. 
   On a related note, the movie was recently remade in China with Chinese stars, and I received a nice check in connection with that. Just goes to show you the power of a good idea and good script.

What we all want: A happy ending
*  You’ve been teaching at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program since 2009.  What one main idea do you try to impress on students

I place a great deal of emphasis on structure. Movies have a specific structure that is often invisible to those who’ve not analyzed them. And they’re almost always about
one main character, even “buddy movies” have a character who is more the lead than the other.
   Another thing I try to make my students aware of is what makes a movie.
Movies are about the moment where somebody’s life changed.” That’s a quote from Christopher Walken, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever come across in terms of summing up what a movie is, and isn’t.
   Beginning writers all too often get caught up in what they think is interesting dialogue or a dramatic moment, and forget to keep their eye on the big picture (forgive the pun). 


Nora Ephron says she became a director in order to protect her scripts. Have you ever thought of becoming a producer/director

No, it’s a whole different ballgame, and unfortunately, not one I think I’m particularly suited to. 
 
*  You have your own script consultation business. What prompted you to do that?

Yes, I do consultation through my website, dianedrake.com. I really love doing it. I feel like I’m able to bring a lot of experience and expertise to the table, both as an executive and as a produced writer. My clients have been so sweet and appreciative, and it’s been gratifying. Writing is so personal to people, and I feel quite honored to be let in on, and able to assist with, their pursuit of their dreams.  

*  Have you ever run into sexism/ageism in Hollywood?  How did you handle it?

I think it certainly exists and basically I try to just ignore it and go on about my business, to not give it any more power. Obviously, there’s no question that there are plenty of weasels in Hollywood, but there are some really great and smart and genuine people, too (for example, Sydney Pollack). I like to believe that, in the end, talent is what matters most. That, and persistence. And luck certainly doesn’t hurt either.

*  Are you working on a screenwriting advice book?

I am. Stay tuned. 

*  What one book would you recommend to a young wannabe screenwriter in Adelaide?

This is not a screenwriting book, per se, but a book about writing and the creative life in general. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Written in 1934, but with so much contemporary resonance and wisdom. Full of timeless, wonderful insights and advice about writing from the heart, and the joys and perils of life as a writer. 
   Just one example: she talks about seeing things freshly, or cultivating what she calls, “The innocent eye.” She advises, “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” 
   I think she’s something of an antecedent for Julia Cameron’s The Artist's Way.
   If people are looking for a book on the nuts and bolts (and trials and tribulations) of screenwriting, there are a ton of them out there, but none I really love. (I must finish mine!) But for the time being, I think Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! is pretty good, as is Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, even if, as I tell my students, the title is absurd. 

*  Name ten of your all-time favorite movies.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Local Hero (1983)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Bull Durham (1988)
Toy Story (1995)
Swingers (1996)
Man on Wire (2008)

First posted:  6 April 2012

Saturday, 19 December 2015

:DRYVRS

We haven't had a new web series for a while, so here's the first episode of a new one by musician, actor and producer Jack Dishel. :DRYVRS is a project from the former Moldy Peaches guitarist, who plays a guy using an Uber-style car service and chronicles the strange drivers he encounters. The debut episode guest stars Macaulay Culkin, the Home Alone kid, as his driver.


Thursday, 17 December 2015

Hidden Meaning of Star Wars

Okay, there's this new film out, a revisit to a 1977 movie with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and that other guy. To celebrate the occasion, here's a study of the hidden meanings of the original film, as explained by Garyx Wormuloid.


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

"The Film School Generation"

As we know, not everyone went to film school. But some people did. And some of them made an impact on the world of movies. So much so, that their stories have been gathered into a documentary which is available online in six parts. 

Here's Part 1.


Here's Part 2. 



Here's Part 3. 



Here's Part 4. 



Here's Part 5. 



Here's Part 6. 



First posted:  4 April 2012

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Honouring those who passed - 2015

Turner Classic Movies honors those great actors, actresses & filmmakers who've made our lives richer with their talent & imagination. We'll always remember you.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Beatles - Hey Jude

I admit it, this is a sentimental post for me: a trip back to my high school years. As I listen to this, I can see myself making sandwiches for my school lunch while listening to Radio 3SR in the kitchen.
Hey Jude topped the charts in Britain for two weeks and for 9 weeks in America, where it became The Beatles longest-running No.1 in the US singles chart as well as the single with the longest running time.

The Beatles did not record their promotional film until Hey Jude had been on sale in America for a week. They returned to Twickenham Film Studio, using director Michael Lindsay-Hogg who had worked with them on Paperback Writer and Rain. Earlier still, Lindsay-Hogg had directed episodes of Ready Steady Go! And a few months after the film for Hey Jude he made The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus TV special that featured John and Yoko but wouldn’t be shown until 1996.

To help with the filming an audience of around 300 local people, as well as some of the fans that gathered regularly outside Abbey Road Studios were brought in for the song’s finale. Their presence had an unlikely upside for The Beatles in their long-running saga with the Musicians’ Union in that the MU were fooled into believing the band were playing live, when in fact they were miming for the vast majority of the song. Paul, however, sang live throughout the song.

The video was first broadcast on David Frost’s Frost On Sunday show, four days after it was filmed. At that point transmission was in black and white although the promo was originally shot in colour. It was first aired in America a month later on 6 October 1968, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Why do we tell stories?

A question I've been asked from time to time is, Why do you write?

The first time I heard that question, my mind turned to the movie Shadowlands (1993), which deals with the life of C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. Lewis was a prolific writer. His circle of literary friends (including J.R.R. Tolkien) formed a writers' group known as the "Inklings". (If you want to see writers discussing their ideas for stories in a learned, but passionate way, watch this movie.)

The Inklings discuss story ideas in an Oxford pub.
In Shadowlands, there is a scene where Lewis confronts a wayward student. The student becomes animated while talking about his love of books. Then he quotes his father as having said: "We read to know we're not alone." That rang true for me; true, but incomplete.

I answered the question—Why do you write?—by quoting from Shadowlands, "We read to know we're not alone," and adding: "We write in order to become known." Meaning, books and screenplays are a safe place for us to explore our inner turmoils, fears and pain, and to allow others to share in our examination. 

I was happy with my answer, until I read Brian McDonald's book, The Golden Theme. (I intend looking at that book in more detail later in the year, perhaps in discussion with Brian.)  It is a small book, overflowing with stories, which illustrate his many points. One of these is the idea that human beings tell stories to pass on survival information. He illustrates that with a story about the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, well-known to Australians, which inundated parts of South East Asia in 2004 and killed almost a quarter of a million people. 
But the Moken people, who live on the coastlands of Thailand and Burma, suffered no deaths at all because they believed in an ancient legend. A story saved their lives. When the ocean receded and a small wave rolled in, the Moken people knew that it meant a tsunami was coming, and they headed for higher ground.
   Their legend says that there will be seven waves before the big wave comes—the wave that eats people. It's called the Laboon and it is caused by the angry spirits of the ancestors. 
   When the spirit of the sea becomes hungry and wants to taste people again, it sends a wave to swallow them up.
What do you think? Does that story reflect reliable scientific fact? The people who knew the story to be unscientific ignored the warning and died in the tsunami. The 'ignorant' fled and survived. Story 1, Science nil.

Matsushima Bay
I was reminded of this when I read another story in the L.A. Times on March 11, 2012, called Japan's 1,000-year-old warning.n a refugee center on the island of Miyatojima, at the entrance to Matsushima Bay, when he stumbled on a story that taught him something unexpected: Collective memorystorycan save your life. A local man told him this story.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

2015 Salute to Cinema

Ben Zuk has compiled a year's end salute to the movies of 2015. Enjoy!


Friday, 4 December 2015

66 Movie Dance Scenes (from 1953 and earlier)

Michael Binder loves old movies and has a lot of time on his hands. In this video, he edited together a stunning mashup of some of our favorite dancers and singers, including people like Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple, Groucho Marx, Rita Hayworth, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Judy Garland, "Bojangles" Robinson, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. None of these clips was sped up or slowed down. 

If you love the old classics and wish they made movies like they used to, turn up the volume, kick back and watch this.



PS: If you want to know the names of the films, click on the video’s subtitles button.

Michael Binder got the idea for his mashup after watching this 100 Movies Dance Scenes Mashup. Same song, different movies.


Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Writing and interruptions

At our last meeting, one of the guys in my writers' group made a comment about how infuriating it can be to suffer an interruption when you are in full flight, writing.

That reminded me of John Cleese, as many things do. In particular, this video, which opens with an appalling joke about Flemish, the language, then moves on to a discussion of some of his experiences with creative writing.

It is worth watching, apart from the opening joke. I once showed it to my wife, who subsequently interrupted me less frequently when I was writing. Maybe that can work for you, too.


First posted:  19 March 2012

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

Andrew Stanton wrote the first film produced entirely on a computer, Toy Story. What made that film a classic wasn't the history-making graphic technology, it was the story and the characters that children around the world instantly accepted into their own lives. 

Stanton wrote all three Toy Story movies at Pixar Animation Studios, where he was hired in 1990 as the second animator on staff. He has two Oscars, as the writer-director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E. His adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy-adventure John Carter, opens in cinemas in March.

The following video runs for nineteen minutes. It consists of a speech Andrew Stanton made to the TED Conference in February 2012.

If you have any level of interest in screenwriting, or if you wondered about the theme of Lawrence of Arabia, you MUST watch this video.

(My thanks to Brian McDonald for telling me about it.)


First posted:  8 March 2012

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Interview with Brian McDonald

Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, and The Golden Theme: How to make your writing appeal to the highest common denominator. 
   He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including Pixar, Disney and Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short film White Face has been shown all over the USA. 
   I had the privilege of asking him some questions back in January. What follows is Part 1 of that interview.
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* You were born on February 18, 1965 (and named after your mother's favourite actor, Brian Keith) in St. Joseph, Missouri, which—for those who don’t know—is the place "Where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended."  Your family later moved to Denver, then Seattle, where you grew up.  Tell us something about your childhood and family. 

I have great memories of Saint Jo, but I didn’t live there very long before my father moved us to Denver. My guess is that I was about 3 or 4 at the time. There were three of us kidsmy brother my sister and me. I’m the eldest. I have a vague memory of pulling up to the Denver house for the very first time. We lived there until I was in second grade.
   The great thing about that house was that there was a drive-in theater really close and from the porch we would watch movies at night. We couldn’t hear them, but we could see them. It’s one of those great childhood memories. 

  I remember Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks showed there and I explained what we were watching to my brother and sister because I had seen the film on a kindergarten field trip.
   That film has both live-action and animation, which is probably why I don’t make much of a distinction between the two even to this day.  I loved the idea of being in an animated world and spent a ton of time daydreaming about it.


* You were close to your father.  What is your best memory of him?  Was he a story-teller?

He was a great storyteller. I have an early memory of him talking about having seen Planet Of The Apes (1968)he was amazed by it. He loved it. I remember he was impressed with an ape that smokes in the film. For some reason the smoking ape fascinated him. It’s hard for young people to understand, but the apes make-up was mind-blowing at the time. When I finally saw the film I loved it as much as he did. 

    I didn’t really grow up with Dad because my parents divorced when I was seven. We moved away from Denver and he stayed.
   At Dad’s funeral his friends mentioned what a good storyteller he was. They said that he always had the correct story to help people with things in their lives. His love of movies and storytelling rubbed off on me, I guess.  But my mother loves movies, too, and watched old movies all the time when they came on television. 

* You struggled at school. How old were you when you found out you were dyslexic?

My dyslexia was never officially diagnosed. Most people suspected it because of my terrible spelling, bad hand writing, and my habit of switching letters and words. I was mostly put into special education classes and it was in one of those classes in high school where my teacher told me that he thought I probably had a learning disability
   Back then people didn't talk about dyslexia the way we do now and I just thought I was stupid. It wasn't until a few years later that I connected the dots when I heard more about what dyslexia was. All of my symptoms matched up. I'm sure I was 19 0r 20 before I really knew.

* Were you a football star, an athlete, or the nerd who fell in love with movies?

I just loved movies and never considered how other people might see me because of it. If I was a nerd I had no idea.
   These things get squished together with time, but I think that Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Planet of the Apes, and the 1933 version of King Kong came into my life around the same time and that set the direction of my life. I wanted to do that. Make those things.
   I wanted to know everything about how this stuff was done. So by five, I wanted to make movies. I watched any behind-the-scenes thing that was on TV. There wasn’t much back then, but if there was anything, I’d watch it. This was before anyone ever heard the name Steven Spielberg, so it was slightly unusual to be so interested in movie-making.
   We were pretty poor after my parents divorced and I had no way to get a movie camera. It was my dream to have one. Then one day I saw an episode of a children’s show that taught kids how to make a flipbook, so for years I made flipbooks at every opportunity. Mom worked in an office and brought pads of paper home for me to use. 
   The flipbooks became my way to make movies with no equipment. It taught me a lot. Animation became my way into film; I loved all types movies equally, but leaned slightly towards anything with animation.

* When did you make your first film with an actual camera?

When I was 10 years old I met a friend who had a movie camera and we made a film called The War. This was in 1975. It was a stop-motion film made with green plastic Army men. I can’t tell you how excited I was to really be making a real film.
   A little while later my mom remarried and my stepfather’s dad gave me an old 8mm camera he had. This was when everything was Super 8, so I was behind the times. But I could not have been happier. 
   After Star Wars there was a lot more stuff about films, filmmaking, and special effects in terms of books, magazines and television. I read about films all the time. It was almost all I ever readbooks and things about film.
   I never divided up the jobs of filmmaking in my mindwriting, directing, and special effects were all interesting to me so I read about every aspect of film, thinking I would need to be able to do it all. And at that time I did all of those things. 

* You wrote your first screenplay at the age of 15.  What happened to that script?

I found a place in town called Golden Age Collectables. It was the first comic book store in the U.S., I believe. They sold scripts so I would buy them with money I made mowing lawns. The first script I saw in real life was a Star Trek script called Mirror Mirror. It was the first time I saw the actual format of a script. That made me think I could write one.
   The first feature I wrote was called Problem Infinity and it was about these astronauts who crash-landed on a dinosaur planet. I just wanted to do a bunch of stop-motion. I wrote it with a friend of mine. I’m sure it was awful. We shot some test footage, but never made the film. After that, I bought a stack of screenplays and studied them.

* You grew up in Seattle. One of your early movie jobs was as a production assistant on Sleepless in Seattle, but you worked in New York, not Seattle. Tell us about that experience.

Sleepless in Seattle came kind of late for me, in reality. I will have to backtrack a little to talk about my early work. I got my first film-related job when I was teenager. The dates are fuzzy, but it was around 1979. Because I was obsessed with film I called up everyone in the phonebook who had anything to do with motion pictures (that’s how it was listed) and asked if I could come talk to them. Most said yes. So I went around town and spoke to all of the film people I could. Mostly they were animation people.
   I met a guy named Bruce Walters who did animated titles, motion graphics and effects for commercialsmostly local Seattle stuff, but some national. His company was called Trickfilm. Somehow I impressed him, and he invited me to come back and hang out. Soon I was helping him with his work, on a volunteer basis after school. After a year or so he gave me a job. It was the first job I ever had. I think I was even too young to work legally, now that I think about it.
   I worked with Bruce for a few years on ads and industrial films. It was an old-fashioned mentor-apprentice deal. This was before computers, so most of our work was done on a manual Oxberry animation stand. I learned a ton from Brucewho is some kind of genius when it comes to that stuff. Years later he would invent digital matte painting. Smart guy. He taught me even more about how to observe thingshow to learn from looking. He knew everything about the history of what he did.
   Eventually, Bruce was offered a job at ILM’s animation department to work on Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.     I stayed in Seattle, but over the years, from working for Bruce, I had gotten to know a few animation people in town and so I started working for all of them. This was not always for pay. Sometimes. But a lot of it was me showing up, hanging out and helping where I could. I sometimes got some freelance work.
   I did that for a few years, then at 21, I packed up my car and moved to L.A. which was always the plan since I was a kidmove to L.A. and get paid to write and direct movies. So, by the time I was 21, I had about six years of working experience under my belt. This was in 1986.
   I didn’t work on Sleepless in Seattle until I moved back in 1993. I only worked on the film for two days and was very surprised to see my name in the credits. I was just on the swing gangI moved furniture mostly.

Brian McDonald in 1987 with the make-up fx crew of Return of the Living Dead 2.
* What kind of film work did you do while in Los Angeles?

I was writing, of course, but on spec.  I was staying with a friend of mine from Seattle, Todd Masters, who had moved to L.A. just a little while before me. Todd was starting to work as a creature effects guy. Through Todd, the very first job I had in L.A. was working for a guy named Ted Rae on a movie called Night of the Creeps. Ted did the effects for the film. I was mostly a runner for Ted, but I did get to assist in the making of “creeps” a little bit.
   I worked on a few creature movies, but I don’t think I got credit on any. This whole time I was working on my writing. I wrote a few specs, but couldn’t get them read. 
   I had been reading comics since I was a kid and used them as a way to learn how to tell stories with pictures. So I wrote a couple of comic book stories that got published [titles include Tarzan, Predator, Lost In Space, and the first Hellboy spin-off Abe Sapien - Drums Of The Dead], but was never able to get a foothold there either.
    I had another friend, Ron Pearson, who was a stand-up comic. I started writing for him and then started to do stand-up myself. I did that for seven years or so, in between movie gigs. I was a mediocre stand-up, but it taught me a ton about audiences and communication.
   This was during the ‘comedy boom’ of the 1980s. A lot of people who are big now were just getting started at the time, and I either got to know or work with a lot of them.
   But like all booms, it ended and the work dried up. I was not high enough on the comedy totem pole to make it through the dry spell. Plus, I liked stand-up a lot, but I didn’t love it. So leaving it was sad, but it did not break my heart.
   One reason I left L.A. was practical. I was broke. And it became a hard place to be because it was killing my love of film and making me doubt myself in every way. I left because I wasn’t going to let L.A. beat me.

* You made the mockumentary short film, ‘White Face’ in 2001.  Did it open any doors for you in Hollywood?

I made White Face to show off my directing and writing skillsit was meant to be a work sample. After the first screening, people starting saying it should win an Oscar. After I won the Audience Award at Slamdance, I got a distributor and the film sold to HBO, who aired the film before it was able to screen at an Oscar-qualifying festival.
   The movie put me on the map a little bit, but mostly with fans, not movie people. I got a little attention, but it wasn’t a feature, so I guess it was off the radar of most Hollywood folks, although a few people were getting gigs based on their shorts.
   I did talk to a producing partner of a big star who saw the film and wanted me to direct a film for them. But soon they said that they couldn’t tell from that film if I knew how to tell a story and they stopped talking to me. Stopped returning my calls.
   I did get to direct a few spots for a Visa web campaign and I think White Face helped that happen. And I did a short for MTV and I’m sure White Face helped those happen. But even those came through a filmmaker friend. 


* The Pixar studio is held in high regard by many people. How did you first become associated with Pixar, and why do you think they are they so successful

Pixar is pretty great. They have been fantastic to me.
   How I got connected with them was I had been teaching screenwriting classes for several years in Seattle at a place called 911 Media Arts. On the near-demand of a student and the advice of a friend I wrote a book based on the classes I was teaching. For years I tried to find a publisher, but had no luck. I just gave copies of the manuscript to students as class handouts.
Andrew Stanton
   I sent the manuscript to an old friend of mine, Derek Thompson, who is a story artist at Pixar. I’ve known Derek since he was in art school in L.A. Derek was working with Andrew Stanton on Wall-E and asked if he could share the manuscript with Andrew and I said that he could.
   From what Andrew later wrote me he was having some story issues with Wall-E and picked the book up on a whim to clear his mind. He read the book in one sitting and he says it helped him with the film. It is one of the coolest things that has happened to me. And then he was generous enough to give me a glowing blurb for the book.
   He suggested to the Pixar education people that I teach a class there. So I have taught a few classes there over the years starting in 2006.
   And now I have been helping a director I know there as he develops his first feature. I have also been helping out some on a Disney project. That has been really fun.
   Everyone wants to know the secret to Pixar’s magic, but no one likes the answer: Hard work. They work really hard to get it right. They are interested in telling good stories and they want to tell them well. They want to reach people emotionally and they want to communicate clearly. And at Pixar story is king.
   I once saw John Lasseter on a talk show where the host asked him the secret of their success and every time Lasseter started in on how important story was, the host would interrupt and inject something about technology being the real key to the hits. Lasseter would politely bring the subject back to story, and again the guy would interrupt. He wasn’t interested in Lasseter’s answer, because he had one of his own. Most people do that. But I can tell you at Pixar they are focused on story and the technology is just a tool that helps them tell stories. They may work on something for a long time, but abandon it if it doesn’t fit the story.
   They work hard to get it right. That’s the Pixar magic. Pixie dust is only elbow grease in powder form.

* I’m a fan of your book Invisible Ink. I think all wannabe screenwriters should study it.  [I know that both Invisible Ink and The Golden Theme are listed on the 26 book "Recommended Reading List" for interns at Pixar this year.]  One thing in the book that surprised me was that, in your analysis of White Face, you say that “each of the characters has his/her three acts.” By your reckoning, Dr Blinky has his third act before Ed Yuk-Yuk/Rollo start their second act.  We’re typically told that an entire screenplay has a single, defined, third ‘story act.’  Thinking about structure in terms of overlapping ‘character acts’ is new for me.  Could you expand on that?

Acts can be confusing to people and some great screenwriters never think in those terms at all and do just fine. White Face is really three stories cut together that express a common theme.
   The most important thing is that the story always moves forwardif you are not advancing plot, character or theme, then you aren’t doing anything and you will lose your audience’s attention. Focusing on acts, and where they are, can be kind of a trap for some people. Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayefsky, and Anton Chekhov thought in terms of acts, so I’m in good company.
   Simply put, if you introduce a character and what they want, that’s Act One. Then you introduce a barrier to that character’s objective and you are into the second act. The second act is all about how the character deals with getting around the barrier. Once the character finds a way around the obstacle you are in the third act. But those things can happen naturally, if you keep moving your story forward and you have a thematic point to make.
   If the characters have any kind of an arc, the acts will be there. It isn’t anything you need to think about too hard. Thinking about it may screw you up.
   Can thinking in terms of acts make one’s work stilted? Yes, until you master it. Many masterpieces follow three-act structure, but they are crafted so well that people don’t notice. It’s never three-act structure that is the problem with a story; it is the skill level of the storyteller.

* I’ve come across a lot of writers who were influenced early on by Rod Serling. What was it about his work that sparked so many young imaginations, yours in particular?

Serling’s stories have the elegance of a fable. They are simple without being simplistic. His stories are easy to understand no matter what age you are.
   But the real meat of his stories is in his themeshe had something to say. I think his generation of writers had a lot to say about humanity. Some good storytellers came out of that generation, because they lived through both the Depression and World War II.  Those things will teach you something about life.
   I see it in my friend Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel without a Cause. He also wrote the screenplay The Rack from a Rod Serling teleplay. The war is still with him and is woven into the fiber of his work. 
   Serling’s pre-Twilight Zone stuff is good, too. He wrote a teleplay called The Strike that is pretty great. You can read the script in Best Television Plays edited by Gore Vidal. Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns are also amazing. The Arena is very good, too. Twilight Zone was seen as a step down from the serious work he’d gotten famous for.

* Who has had the greatest influence on you as a writer?

I’m not sure I know that answer. The easier answer is Rod Serling: he is the writer I feel a kinship with. I have almost a son’s pride when I talk about his work.
   I’ve studied his work for so long I know his flaws, at least what I think are his flaws. For instance, all of his characters sound the samelike Serling. (He actually admitted that was a flaw of his work.) So, it isn’t that I think he’s a perfect writer, but for me, he is the perfect storyteller.
   I learned a ton from television writers because in the days before cable, Blu-ray and everything else we have now, you could not see a movie whenever you wanted. You had three channels and public television. That’s it. So I watched a ton of television. But I was never a passive viewerI was always working when I watched TV, even as a young kid I would notice the construction of the stories, or the set-up and pay-off of jokes.
   But for movies, it’s Billy Wilder. That’s it, hands down. He wins. I don’t think anyone can touch him. He was great at every aspect of screenwriting and he turned out classics for years and years. Solid stories, well told. Easy to say, hard to do. And he did it often.

* If you could recommend just one screenwriting advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide (not including one of your own), what would that book be?

One?  That’s hard.  It can depend on what a writer needs at a particular time in his or her development.  The wrong book now might be the right book tomorrow.
   Bill Idelson's Writing Class is a book I love because it was written by an old-time craftsman television writer. He’s not full of crap to make himself sound smart. He’s gone now, but he thought it was important to pass on what he had learned after years in the biz. Idelson wrote for the Twilight Zone, Andy Griffith, The Dick Van Dyke Showclassics of television. If people read his book and do the exercises before moving on to the next chapter, they will be better at crafting stories by the end. A lot better.
   I have to mention two more books to round out the information.
   On Directing Film by David Mamet.  It is ostensibly about directing, but it’s really about telling stories with pictures. This is a thing that most screenwriters have almost no idea how to do. Most screenwriters write radio plays, not screenplays. This is a visual medium. Learn to use the pictures.
   Those first two books are thin and will feel simple on the surface. I have noticed that the people with the least experience want to make everything harder than it needs to be. When they read something that makes perfect sense, they assume they must have already known it because it’s so elementary. But people who have been at a craft a long time look for simplicity. Learn to see the wisdom and beauty of simplicity. Leonardo da Vinci said simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
    The last is book I have recommended oftenThe Collected Works of Paddy Chayefsky: The Television Plays. In it are not only some of his plays, but also essays on his thoughts on their construction. 
   I like these books because they are by people who told stories for a living, so their information is practical. They are no-nonsense books that will simply make you better. They will not try to dazzle you with charts, graphs and diagrams. These guys just tell you how to do it.
   I know you asked for one, but there you are…

* Finally, what comes next for Brian McDonald

I have another book that should be out soon called Ink Spots and it’s a compilation of blog posts I have done over the years.
   I have a screenplay I wrote a while ago that I want to direct, so I am in the beginning stages of planning how to make that happen. People really like the script and I think I can make a good movie out of it.
   The funny thing is, when I make it, they will call it my ‘first film’, but my first film was a flipbook I made when I was eight.  And I think that should count.

You can read more about Brian's comedian friends HERE, on his blog.
 


First posted:  9 February 2012