Archive for April, 2012

How to grab the right idea

And when an idea dies on you it is, in fact, one of the best things that can happen. Because you ve just saved yourself an enormous amount of time and grief. Some ideas just don t want to be written. They don t want to be written by you. Some ideas have fooled you into thinking that they have more power than they, in fact, do. If you find that out after writing a first draft, you ve wasted a lot of time and you ve also lost faith in yourself because you believed in something and you couldn t pull it off.

Paul Schrader

You won’t have one single solitary idea. You’ll have plenty. The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff. First thing you must know is that nothing goes to the garbage can, as i’ve said before, you should save all your ideas, mostly won’t be useful by themselves, only combined with other idea, so even if you discard it now, keep it around.

You have a list of ideas, it’s time to highlight some of them based in a question to yourself “Would you watch this?“. If yes, underline it, otherwise, discard it. It’s really important for a writer to incorporate different personas in the craft, according to Maurice Blanchot it already happens; you can’t read your own work as the writer of it, you gotta break your writing to turn into the reader.

The writer cannot abide near the work. He can only write it; he can, once it is written, discern its approach in the abrupt Noli me legere which moves him away, which sets him, which obliges him to go back to that “separation” which he first entered in order to be attuned to what he had to write. So that now he finds himself as if at beginning of again and discovers again the proximity, the errant intimacy of the outside from which not make an abode.

Maurice Blanchot

Whenever you realize that the YOU whom writes is different than the YOU whom reads, then you’ll manage to get the most important feedback amidst all: YOURS. Self-criticism is the first step to select a good idea and is significant because it evolves with you. Along with your learning of the craft you’ll be in reach with several ideas and experience will make it easier to filter for the ideal one. You’ll be the one working on this idea, so you must be comfortable to do it, although you might be still insecure about the idea, which moves us to the next step.

A good idea is comfortable.

Get some outer-feedback. If your self-criticism is not as sharp and it should, you might get cocky and too confident after your self-evaluation, to prevent that you gotta expose your idea, however, don’t go to your hipster movie goer friend you’ve met on MUBI, you want to please a regular person and rouse its attention into your idea, since they won’t be biased. Pitch your idea under a camouflage, don’t say straight away that it is your idea, tell you watched a movie with your idea or anything like that, it’s more important to read the listener’s reaction than their opinion. That’s like asking if they “would watch this“. This is the moment when “story of an outsider boy whom must seek for a new reason to live after being dumped by his girlfriend” idea falls apart. This will be called as a hipster idea from now on.

A good idea hooks the listener.

Now that your idea grabbed someone’s attention, you gotta get back to your desk and seek for more self-criticism. “Can this idea evolve?” is a key question at the moment and its answer will change along the writing. Until you finish the first draft of the script, it’s all about writing. Write, write, write. Just get the story done. In the middle of this process you’ll find the answer to this question right in front of you. Still, if you can’t take your idea to another level right away, it doesn’t seem like it is the best moment to spend your time on it.

A good idea seems promising.

Notwithstanding, one of the most important things to have in mind is that a short film is mostly visual; due to a matter of time, you must focus on showing and telling your story visually. If la photographie, c’est la vérité, et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde, according to Jean-Luc Godard, then a 120-minute feature film has 172800 truths to be told. A 5-minute short has 7200, so you better use them well. The spoken word takes much more time to be absorbed than the mise-en-scène. A “Hello” wastes 24 frames, to say the least. For this reason, your idea for a short film must have a strong image, because you won’t have a lot of time to introduce and develop it.

A good idea has a strong image.

This strong image thing looks bullshit, but you’ll find out there are several great short films that are purely visual masturbation. It works. Think about strong images and you’ll be in the right direction. To illustrate that, one of the best short films i’ve ever seen:

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The stuff that IDEAS are made of

“There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, ‘Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.’ Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them–good, bad, or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them… People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense thos into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. They you have to dramatize it–it is as simple as that–by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.”

Billy Wilder

THE VOID. When each blink of the cursor in your text editor seems to last an eternity. Possibly the worst and most frightening part of being a writer of any kind. And we’re not even talking about writer’s block around here, because the notorious block happens when you have something to write, but you can’t, it can be solved by organizing yourself. However, ideas are the ground zero, is when you have nothing to write about and something must come up from nowhere. Follow Wilder’s advice: there’s no nowhere, our minds are polluted and we must clean it up in order to achieve an original story.

1. Take a time away.

Doesn’t matter how expensive and comfortable your office chair is, it will feel like a judas cradle if you’re willing to harvest ideas there for a long time. People say that you should enjoy your procrastination, break your routine, but that’s not actually essential. The problem is that while you’re staring at the blank page, squeezing an idea from your fingers, you’re thinking “Oh, how writing is boring“; “This pressure is awful“; “Why can’t i have an idea?” and so on, you’re so worried about getting an idea that you unable your mind of doing so. Still, if you break your routines or procrastinate on purpose of writing, you’re on the risk of doing something you dislike, then you’ll start thinking “This party sucks, i wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that stupid writing“. Honestly, my best ideas come from two particular moments: taking a bath and dumping a shit. Both are moment in my routine and doesn’t count as procrastination, still, there’s no blame in the writing and there’s nothing to pollute my head there. It doesn’t work if you use a laxative, by the way.

2. Harvest in the real world.

I dislike the idea of reading blogs for inspiration, you won’t get a brand-new story reading this post, you’ll learn about the craft of story-scavenging. There are people posting about their real lives, somewhere, still, there are easier ways to get in touch with reality.   Reading the news is a good start and as smaller the range of news coverage, usually more singular are the articles. Check your local newspaper, those are the best. Sites with curious stories are also a great way to dig up some interesting facts which might inspire you, so i offer you my daily check: Cracked. It’s daily updated with articles on strange subjects and i’m certain that you’ll find something there. Besides that it is funny most of the time :)

3. Change the point of view.

“The genesis of The Apartment I remember very, very vividly. I saw David Lean’s Brief Encounter, which was based on a one-act play by Noel Coward, and in the play Trevor Howard was the leading man. A married man has an affair with a married woman, and he uses the apartment of a chum of his for sexual purposes. I always had it in the back of my mind that the friend of Trevor Howard’s, who only appears in one or two tiny scenes, who comes back home and climbs into the warm bed the lovers have just left, would make a very interesting character.”

–  Billy Wilder

If Billy Wilder (also known as DA BOSS) says you can get fresh stories from other people’s work, then you certainly can! I still remember reading François Truffaut: The Lost Secret, organized by Anne Gillian and seeing the french direct state that there’s a limit of dramatic situations, therefore, stories tend to repeat themselves. I’m not telling you to rewrite shit, there are enough remakes going on already and we laying on the rock bottom of the post-modernism crap. Watch a movie, read a book, find a different story, find the life of that supporting character that brought you attention. Commonly fiction is restricted to a single point of view (unless you’re a Robert Altman wannabe) and the events are seen by an unique prism. And this is pretty easy to exercise: grab a scene from a movie and write it from a different point of view than the focused character of it.

4. Be ready.

Carry a notebook and a pen. You’re digesting stuff you’ve recently came into knowledge all the time and an idea may show up anytime and you better keep it. Even if it is bad. Keep a file with your discarded idea, someday you might need any of those. Remember that you must gather a lot of information, since commonly new ideas emerge when you assemble two or more understandings unconsciously.

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Table of Ideas

Here i am again to talk about short films. As i’ve been saying in my fractured monologue, commonly the best short-films to go viral are not character driven, but situation driven, using the character as tools to exploit the aimed moment. So stretch your hands, here comes an idea to work with:

A couple comfortably sit in a quite fancy restaurant table, but certainly not the best in town. They’re happy together, but misplaced in the background. Not used to all that candle light and proper manners. The waiter comes over, delivers the menus and brings a basket of bread. She looks at the menu, but he is dazzled by her beauty, she orders the soup and so does he. Enchanted. He puts his elbow in the table and it declines. The table is short in one leg. The bread rolls in the basket. She worries, but he gotta fix it, so he stoops down to check the damage. Emerges, smiles at her, takes a few paper napkins. Fold them and place under the broken leg. The soup arrives. They start the meal, however, the table tilts to the other side and the plate spills the hot soup over her lap. She stands up and starts to clean up the mess. He looks after her. The waiter comes over to check what’s happening and the man asks for another table, the waiter promises to get them the next free sit. She excuses and goes to the ladies’ room. The man gets angry and decides to fix this table once for all. Looks for something to use and gets the box-ring from his jacket pocket. Opens it, take the wedding ring out and keep it with himself. Place the box under the second short leg. The waiter brings two glasses of wine as an apology. The man asks him for the bill. The woman comes back with a wet stain in her dress. They drink some wine and another table’s leg completely break. Making fall over the woman’s side. The candles slip and set the table cloth on fire. The man, in a ballsy move, try to quench the flames, flipping the table over. The woman looks at him and finds the box-ring in the floor. Excited, she picks it up. He’s too busy to notice. She opens it and gets disappointed. Looks at him as if it was all a big joke and storms away from the restaurant. The man extinguishes the fire and searches for his lady. She’s already gone. He sits back at the chair. The waiter brings the bill.

This is just a brainstorm from a situation-driven plot and it can certainly be changed. Nevertheless, it’s noticeable the most important check-ins for a story: GOAL (propose her) and OBSTACLE (the broken table). With that we can move on, there’s a story somewhere there and our job is to harvest its finest.

Budget X Creativity

If you’re reading this it can only mean two things: 1. You know me or we’re Facebook friends somehow. 2. You’re a aspirant screenwriter and i’m accidentally good at SEO.  Perhaps you’re a film student looking for some advice for your graduation project. You wanna make a movie or something.

You recognize that you need a script for that, that shows how worthy these years in college were. Still, i believe you’re under a tight budget since the beginning. You won’t pay anyone; gonna use the university’s equipment; your mom will do the catering and your dad is the closest thing you’ll have to an executive producer. But that’s how filming your first important film looks like. Keep that in mind: filming. Not writing.

While writing you gotta let your imagination loose, you should not be pondering do we have the budget to film this? I used to think like that, then i showed a project to one of my teachers and he thought the idea was great, then he gave me an advice: you gotta stop thinking in low-budget. Went home thinking about it and said Fuck it! Included an airplane crash and a jaguar in the story and you know what? It got so much better i couldn’t let those two elements go away in the following drafts of the story. You’re working in the purpose of the story ONLY, if you don’t respect that, your writing won’t do either. You should replace your question to IS THIS WORTH FILMING? When the immediate reply is YES, you know the job is getting done.

Obviously, this process might not allow you to film the script due to a lack of money, nevertheless, in the meantime you created a decent script, learnt more about the craft and respected the idea. You must have several ideas, one of them will make a great low-budget film, just don’t waste a high concept story into a low-budget film.

A Slice of Lifetime

So you have that blank page starting at you and you’re think that it would be a good idea to fill it with some fine touch of story. But wait, did you make THE QUESTION? No? Then you just can’t keep going.

Before writing the header of your scene you should ask yourself: “Why now?“. Yes, this gets more complex. You’re possibly dealing with a character which has born, grown and lived quite a bit of his life and you’re not stupid enough to follow him since he was a fetus, so when you’re writing a story you’re taking a slice of his lifetime. That is what all movies are.

Why this slice of life begins in the particular moment you thought of? See, the first scene is possibly the most important scene with a number tag on it.

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”

That’s from Franz Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS. First paragraph. Well-known as one of the best beginnings ever written. After that paragraph we get to know the two most important things to introduce in the beginning of a movie:

  • Who our character is?
  • What’s the problem?

If all movies are slices of lives, then all movies are ABOUT changes. And the PROBLEM is exactly that: what is problematic enough to change my character’s life? Because your movie begins there.

In SUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder, 1960), the movie starts with our main character shot dead in the pool, so you have our problem (DEATH) and the story is about the events which led to his murderer.

in THE SEARCHERS (John Ford, 1956), the movie begins with Ethan’s family slaughtered and so he rides through the desert in the seek for revenge. That’s problem. Ethan is a racist and wouldn’t look out for Debbie since she’s turned into another indian, but when he catches the fleeing teen in the middle of a full battle, he catches and holds her. That’s change.

in THE DESCENDANTS (Alexander Payne, 2011) our main character’s wife suffers a boating accident and he finds out she had an affair. The movie proceeds with his search for answers about her lover and about himself.

Eventually all feature films plots go down to this: problem & change and they’re connected: the problem must cause a change and the change must be caused by a problem. Nothing comes from nowhere.

The problem is that working on short films we don’t have enough runtime to expose our characters enough for a change to be substantial. This is the reason why there’s no decent short film about characters (unless it is a documentary like Sunshine) and that’s the spot where most beginners stumble, since they want to write about their lives, their loves, their changes.

Short films are about a single situation, two at most. They’re exclusively about the problem. We’ve seen that last week with the 2 short films i used as example: The Black Hole & Lucky. The first is about a guy whom finds a paper with a black circle that works just like in the cartoons, the character takes advantage of this tool and the film is over when he can’t do that any longer. The latter is about a guy whom must escape from a car in movement, it ends when he escapes, quite ironically somehow. Check ALL PIXAR shorts, they’re all about a situation and its outcomes.

Now we know the biggest difference between short films and feature films, one is situation driven while the other is character driven. You can start separating the wheat from the chaff now.

AND a pixar movie just for the record:

Until next time.

But… What’s a short film?

Obviously, the same rule applies to when you set the logical difference between a person with dwarfism and a person without it. Well, actually, this goes much beyond a matter of length when discussing the differences between short films and their bigger brother (not older, since, obviously, short films are the first instance of cinema)

If you look for the best-voted short films in IMDB you’ll find some REALLY great films: Sherlock Jr. (45 min); La Jetée (28 min); Un Chien Andalou (16 min); Partie de Campagne (40 min); Meshes of the Afternoon (14 min); Zero de Conduite (41 min); Nuit et Brouillard (32 min); Scorpio Rising (28 min) etc. See that i kept the runtime for each example? Can we have a 45 minutes short film nowadays? Honestly, i don’t think so. From that list only Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon fit in the 15-minute limit (ok, mercy for Buñuel in this one), yet, both are experimental projects, quite absent of a logical narrative, which is our goal here in case you forgot. Concluding, IMDB gave us nothing at surface.

In my personal opinion a short film should have AT MOST 15 minutes, but if you want to know my preference it would be 5 minutes. FIVE? What can be told in five minutes? The examples shall come.

The main way of exhibition for short films is the internet, more specifically youtube and vimeo. Now tell me, what holds you longer than 5 minutes in a youtube video? FinalCut Pro tutorials? Certainly not a videoblog. In those places we’re expecting short experiences.

You go to the mall, buy a movie ticket, enter in the theater room, sit, watch the trailers, the movie begins. You possibly went to the bathroom BEFORE because you did this entire ritual expecting to sit still for 90 minutes at least, so if not much happens in the first 5 minutes, we forgive the movie. In a short film, if you don’t deliver something in the first 30 seconds, the spectator will just close the video or click in a featured suggestion beside, because the DEAL you’ve made with your spectator is a short-term one and it demands a quick response from your side.

The reason why i indicate the 5-minutes edge is because of our exhibition devices. When Sherlock Jr. or Partie de Campagne were released, 40 minutes was a quite common runtime for movies, the effort was to sell a Napoléon or longer length movies. Nowadays we just can’t enjoy that luxury anymore.

This post intends to stand basic differences between short and long films, which will consequently lead to the divergence of their narrative resources. To emphasize how quickly the PROBLEM that a short film story will deal in its length should be exposed, i’ll give two examples:

Lucky, by Nash Edgerton

The Black Hole, by Phil and Olly

Until next time.

Act I: Introduction

Somewhere in the book Story, McKee says that the story picks you, not otherwise. Can’t remember the exact quote and this crap PDF doesn’t allow me to search through it, so you gotta trust me. I also believe that the story also chooses its format, some of them fit better in a smaller package. Not all stories are supposed to be displayed as feature films.

The issue that concerns me is that we don’t know much about the structure of a short film. Actually, we barely know what is a short film in terms of narrative. Is it a piece of a scene? Is it a strange situation? A limb of a bigger story? Or pure visual masturbation?

Does it follows the general structure of feature films? Shall we invest in three or more acts, characters arcs, themes, climaxes and whatsoever?

This blog intends to be an open study about the nature of the short film in terms of script and i’d like to dig deep into its structure along with available historical examples to find out what suits best the format.



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