Archive for June, 2012

Concerns on the second act

Oh, the second act, the place to distinguish good writers from the bad. When talking about feature films, second act is the journey, it starts when your main character steps up to face the outcome caused by the INCITING INCIDENT, at the end of the first act. The second act is the place where stakes rise and obstacles pop up out of everywhere in order to make our hero’s path more challenging. Yet, the principle for a second act is CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The problem is: how to apply these necessities into a short film?

You’ll find attempts to squeeze a second act in short films, but honestly, how many complications can you get? How much can you develop something in the midpoint of these 10 minutes? You can’t. As in the feature films, most screenwriters fail to present a honest second act to their short films, mostly because they apply the 101 suggested for feature films.

I Love Sarah Jane, by Spencer Susser is one of those. Apparently it is a character-driven film, which relies on a strong second act, and that is nearly impossible in a short film, as i aforementioned, you need to place your character into complicated situations and you can’t include many in your available time. Boy likes Sarah Jane, but she’s a wall of a girl and the rest of the boys are alpha, beta and gama, respectively. Our boyscout is the loser, obviously. You shouldn’t develop your characters without moving the action, if you stop your film for a character’s speech, metaphorically speaking, it will be an AA meeting instead. And loose those chains a bit, a zombie is no tormentor chained. A bad development, like this one, makes you ponder. If that’s her dad, how didn’t she make a move before? There’s no strength in our loser’s lines to make we believe he changed her mind.

Turns out, the second act is not about randomly throwing traps at your main character, all the events must build a logical crescendo of character development and obstacle arduousness. Tougher and deeper, as good sex should be.

Previously, i’ve commented how films based on a magical amulet tend to succesfully create a satisfactory second act. The main reason for that is that those aren’t character-driven films, films like The Black Hole, by Phil and Olly, use human beings as mere tools for storytelling, meanwhile the main character are the amulets themselves. In this case, a portable blackhole in a paper sheet. See yourself, as a human being, you do several things, even simultaneously, like scrolling down this article and filling your hand with Doritos. But an object is a tool, it has a proper designated function, doesn’t matter if you bought that screwdriver with 64 different functions. Keep it simple so your reader can recognize it easier. As these amulets have a single function, the second act is straightforward. Repeat, repeat and repeat. Still, the stakes must increase everytime. Even in films like Spider, the toy spider does what it is supposed to: prank people.

The other reason is that as the object has a single function, you only need to show it once for the sake of introduction, so you set a fast rhythm to your narrative, afterwards is all about repeating until the consequences of its unceasing use lead the narrative to a point of no return, from which the human guide must find a way to clean up the mess. This closes the second act.

Besides being a power point presentation as i strongly criticized in the last article, it is still a decent illustration of a structure absent of a second act. What? No second act? This is against the law of physics!  Calm down, my friends, it is completely plausible. That’s what i call as a ‘punch-line short film’; as you may see, this film is all about the change of the sign, there’s no depth, besides learning that the beggar is blind there’s no character development. It’s the chicken crossing the road. But it doesn’t mean that your short film must be as bad as the example or the joke. In my article about the first act, i’ve commented how character-driven plots rely on longer first acts, due to that sometimes the best choice is to send your main character to the point of no return forthright, as the example of the daughter whom must find out what to do with her recently deceased mother’s body.

Still, don’t lose your faith in the old style, as you may realize by watching The Ghosts, sometimes you can create a great second act without squeezing or using the other resources i listed. Just keep it classic if it improves your story. Remember, that you’re the one working for it, not the opposite, the story is your boss and you should grab the best of it.

 

Short films we don’t want to see anymore

This is a list of short film archetypes we often see around social medias. These models usually result into bad short films or we’re simply way too tired to give them any support any longer.

1. Surrealist

This is like film school fresh-year. There’s ALWAYS a student thinking he’s superior or that he has a übermensch creativity and inner depth, whom decides that this kind of structure is the only one possible to organize his confused mind. We don’t care about your mind, we want a story. A film won’t set a truce between you and the world. There must be a reason why Buñuel haven’t explored this format so directly after L’Age d’Or achieving success. Tiny bits of surrealism are welcome, i can’t struggle how much i adore Svankmajer‘s work, which is certainly surrealistic, but the thing newcomers don’t realize is that the actual big guns work out with the external absurdity surrealism proposes, meanwhile, what we must repudiate are these surreal short films with inner developments, which will be written by someone whom possibly has never even read Freud, using a visual language only himself will find attractive and understandable.

2. Visual Masturbation or Poetic

Cinematography is a pillar of the structure, not the roof which shelters you from rain. It can’t hold the film by itself. These hipothetically poetic films, loaded with slow shots, cheap voice-over are all over the place. That’s another freshmen statement. You can determine what is a poem, since it is a predefined structure, yet you can’t define what is poetic, since it is not up to you. It’s up to the viewer. So trying to force the poetry into your spectator’s throat is not only unnecessary and rude, but you’re also limiting yourself into the wrong path for the right call. You can (and will, with dedication) achieve the same depth using the story. Also, several of these poetic short films come out after the student first contact to directors like Tarkovksy, which i admire truly, reason that bores me even further when i see these frustrated attempts. Have you seen that scene in Zerkalo, with the lady sitten in the fence and the wind creating a wave of grass in the background? He hired a helicopter to do that crap, how do you expect to place your camera in front of a tree and expect the same result? It’s so presumptuous it is offensive. You as a filmmaker must realize that, different than painting or photography, the film moves. The image is always in motion even standing still, the clock doesn’t stop counting until it is over. This makes movement an extremely important resource for a filmmaker which relies on years of experience to master. Poetic short films are like attempting to rape the spectator.

3. Powerpoint presentations

You know when your mother gives your email to that distant aunt and she daily spams your inbox with those cute ppts? Those messages that “God will serve us all”, “there is still kindness in the world”, “you must believe in yourself”. The public for this kind of film is exactly your distant aunt. Seems touchy in the first view doesn’t it? Yet, so did that bitch/jerk whom dumped you in high school. They’re cheap, this “today is gonna be the best day” atmosphere sounds good to kick off the day, however it is as deep as my cutting board. It doesn’t justify kindness, the guy in a suit is simply the Messiah. You can find good people at films, people whom inspire you, still they also have flaws and we will never identify with the qualities. NEVER. We want the flaws, we need the inner gangrene that consumes the good men’s life day by day. We all have our inner demons and we’re not looking after perfection, but solemnity. If this didn’t convince you, just keep your aunt in mind.

So, please, please, start a new work if you’re going through any of these archetypes, as they won’t develop you as a screenwriter. They’re short cuts to an end we all pursuit, the problem is that we’re watching a film to appreciate the road.

Research your story

I was gone for a few days (please tell me you noticed) because i was researching for my next project. It’s a feature film and i can’t get much further into it (also because there’s not much to talk about it either).

Researching for a feature film seems logical, after all, that thing is two-hour long, according to your theme you can’t get all your facts straight. But for 15-minutes? What can go so wrong?

Everything.

Mostly, the structural, actual storytelling, moving the narrative on, might differ from the script brothers. Still, the rules of stance towards the viewer applies to both movie siblings. The first rule of a film is to hook your spectator on, but that can’t hold the story on its own. You must not fuck this up thereafter.

Verisimilitude is a key word. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? Didn’t you get yourself knocked out when Indiana Jones survives that submarine trip? You might get back to the movie soon subsequently, but for those few seconds you were staring at the ceiling of the movie theater. That’s a 110 minutes film, when we’re talking about a short film, a blink is almost substantial time length wasted.

Still, losing your spectator because you didn’t get your facts straight is amateurish job and i’m not talking about a situation only, location is possibly the most damaged aspect of a film due to lack of research. When you’re doing a story on your neighborhood you possibly know everything, but try writing about the Saara desert if you haven’t ever been there. And, honestly, working on your environment is kindergarden writing. You can’t evolve playing cozy all along.

Research will avoid flimsy obstacles which you might present to your characters, because there’s always a doctor watching your film to declare that the particular venomous plant doesn’t grow in that area. For example, do you know what’s the biggest threat at the Amazon rainforest? Gators? Indigenes? Jaguars? Spiders? None of them. Stingrays it is. Just like the one which killed Steve Irwin. And i bet everything that you never thought those would be a great obstacle for a survival film. How did i learn that? Research. The one and only.

Besides cleaning up the way from bad hazards, research will also show you new obstacles. This means that it will pop up your best possibilities. You lost your encounter with the indigenes, but you got a character stabbed in the leg by a stingray while crossing a river. You just got yourself a ticking bomb. Your story only improved by taking away your preconceptions on a subject and inserting a fresh, realistic point of view to the situation.

If you’re doing a history piece then? If you don’t research you’ll simply repeat the same clichés, mistakes and anachronisms we carry along the road will all others that came before you. And by doing that you’re losing a chance to emphasize yourself as a screenwriter.

Here i’ll list a few tips to improve your research:

1. Use the internet properly: Google is a powerful tool if used properly, skip all determiners, prepositions and pronouns when doing a search. This way you’ll hit the jackpot of internet tags, or how the information is stashed at search engines. Or something like that. Don’t get tired after the first page as well, results come from determination.

2. Visit a teacher: University is the place to be to find knowledge and there’s probably a phD wandering around there whom knows more than you on the subject you’re investigating. If not, they may at least suggest you some lecture.

3. Visit the library: It’s hard to visit the library empty handed, but if you did the first two steps correctly, then will be something specific to look after. Internet can’t compete will books when you’re doing some real research.

4. Get in touch with everybody: There will be a point in which you’ll want very specific information in very short time, this should lead you to specialists and you can find those everywhere. For example, once i visited the morgue to ask about human decomposition to the legist. It took away some cards from my hand, but gave me some pretty good draws too.

5. Read literature from that time: There’s no better way to recognize an age’s mannerisms than literature. And great literature will also improve your writing by itself. Win-win.

6. Don’t get lost: If you get too used to research it might become a form of procrastination. Don’t allow that to happen. Learn the moment to close your case and start your first draft. Think this is like a murder case investigation, after you got all your pieces together, it is time to send it to trial.

Hopefully i’ll be around sooner next time. See you this week (It’s a promise!)

How to set up a short film?

If this is not your first week at screenwriting, you possibly heard of the three-act structure, since we hate changes, this method is used since ancient Greece. It doesn’t matter how revolutionary you are, you can’t shake things up unless you know what you’re dealing with and the biggest share of the stories turned into movies are based on the three-act structure.

The first act is named Set up, which is the introduction of elements required to tell our story. The following act is the Confrontation, which is the complication of the core problem of the story, the uprising challenges our hero must fight against in order to achieve his goal. Resolution is how the third act is called, since it is when our problem commonly gets solved. Most manuals will suggest that you split your film, timewise, into these three acts, the first occupying 1/4 of your film, the second act 1/2 and the third act filling the last 1/4. Yet, i won’t bullshit you with a post on the three-act structure, if you don’t know what we’re talking about this far, just google it.

If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

– Billy Wilder

Here’s the thing, the first act is the one you must be more careful about, it’s like preparing for a camping trip, whenever you’re in the woods, if you forgot to pack your sleeping bag, you gonna spend your night at the ground. This means that the first act is your toolbox and it is over when you close it. It’s the place you’ll introduce all your resources, characters, starting points which will develop further along the road. Some films require a longer introduction, since they have much more information to deliver, you’ll commonly find it at science fictions, like Inception. A good screenplay doesn’t mean that you’ll follow the 1/4 recipe for the set up, but that you won’t miss to introduce a thing.

Commonly the first act ends whenever our main character starts seeking for his GOAL, which means the LIFE-CHANGING EVENT was already introduced. Still you can’t waste too much of your time on introduction. We don’t go to a party expecting to handshake a bunch of new people, we want those drunk girls to jump at the pool. So a good introduction is also moved with CONFLICT. I’ll use Spider as an example again, it’s like the third time we’re using it, but i’ll post the video anyway in case you haven’t seen it.

We see our main character, the toy spider, for the first time at the 3-minute mark, that’s 1/3 of the film. It does nothing to the story until the 6-minute mark. That’s 2/3 of the film. So you have 3 minutes to exploit your EVENT. The point is that the movie starts with conflict, the couple fighting at the car and soon our main character acquires a goal: reconcile with his girl. Even though you’re not dropping your bombs in the first key minutes, you’re driving us through with something to hold on. Even if you play slowly, you gotta play.

If you use a 10 minute short film as parameter, your first act according to a formula should have 2½ minutes. You can’t get a noodles done in that time. Nevertheless, i’ve always recommend you to start your short film with the LIFE-CHANGING EVENT, because you must have something explosive in the beginning to keep your viewer attached, most feature films use a sequence to introduce to your character activity, for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark and that rolling boulder or Drive and the first heist which doesn’t have much to the whole story. Still, both scenes show what your main character is all about. As a short filmmaker, you don’t have this much runtime to spare, so you better get going with something that will also move your main plot.

The more CHARACTER DRIVEN is your story, longest must be your first act. Characters to be introduced in some sort of depth must be done slowly, you can’t simply drop everything at your viewer. For example, a short film in which the daughter accidentally kills her mother and must decide what to do with her body, if you start up with the LIFE CHANGING EVENT itself, we won’t know why will the daughter take the decisions she will take over the dead body. So you must take a step back, in general, to realize when you should take a longer time introducing your characters, you start your story at the LIFE CHANGING EVENT and if the story’s calls doesn’t flow naturally, you’ll realize there’s something else to introduce. Just remember to ALWAYS have conflict moving your narrative, even before you institute your main plot point.

Keep in mind as well that you must take your time, because whenever your second act begins, there’s no way back, still you must be concise, this is a short film after all. If you want to estabilish a parameter for your first works, you can’t bypass 2/3 of your film in the first act, otherwise the following events will run in such a rush it will feel hasty.

The surprise, the accident, these are factors you must identify at your life changing event, because when you spend much time developing your introduction, it might work as climax as well. Spider is like that, but if you use my example, possibly an accident would lead to the mother’s death, this is our life changing event but you could also end your story right after it, let’s pretend that our daughter character took a decision over dumping her mother’s body that is surprising, this means that it goes against to the expectatins raised in the earlier character development, perhaps she chops her mother’s body and feed the cats with the parts, but before they had a good relationship, although they were discussing about the amount of cats her mom raised in her house as she has another candidate to the club.

Yes, this is like skipping the second act, ain’t cheating, it works and might save you some time length.

Interview: Eddie O’Keefe

You might not know Eddie by now, but you’ll certainly hear from him in the next few years. Still, O’Keefe has directed three short films in the course of his film studies, including the VIMEO Award nominee and Short of the Week winner The Ghosts, which we reviewed here in the blog. Besides that, Eddie recently sold a spec script, under production, When the Street Lights Go On, along with his partner Chris Hutton. Street Lights also featured in the second place at the 2011’s Black List, a relation of the best non-produced screenplays of the year. The partnership also rendered another screenplay, The Final Broadcast, which recently got an “impressive” rating at ScriptShadow. And the best part of it? Eddie is like you and me, former film student, below 30’s, fighting for his spotlight. I would like to be on his shoes and grab a spark of his talent, let’s see how this goes:

I. When did you decide to get into this sort of business?

– I decided to get into this business out of laziness. Unlike every other facet of my life, writing is a skill I don’t have to work hard to be any good at. Not that I’m Faulkner or anything, but I can string a sentence together okay I guess. I failed in pretty much every subject in school growing up except writing. So it was either be a writer of some sort or wash cars. It’s still not too late for me to wash cars though should this all not work out.

II.  You’ve done film school, right? What do you believe is the most important thing film schools should offer?

– The most important thing film schools can offer you is the chance to experiment and create. I’ve learned much more while making films or writing scripts than I ever have listening to lectures.

III. What were your expectations when joining film school? How did they change along the years?

– I expected to become a better filmmaker by going to film school. I guess at the end of the day that expectation was met. It only took 6 years.

IV. What was the feeling when you directed your first short film?

– The first short film I directed was called “Blind Billy Rudolph.” It was about a rich white kid in the American suburbs who discovered the delta blues and decided to become some Dyaln-esque wasp martyr. The Graduate meets Robert Johnson meets the most pretentious black and white student film ever made. Don’t try looking for it, it has been scrubbed clean from the Internet. It was totally ridiculous.

V. You have a few short films under your sleeve, including the wonderful The Ghosts, yet you also sold a feature film screenplay recently. What do you believe to be the greatest differences between working on shorts compared to feature films?

– The biggest difference between writing a short and writing a feature is length and momentum. A short film can sustain itself on its sheer style and velocity. Not true with features. Plot and structure matters much more the higher the page count. Not to say that a short can be shapeless and haphazard, but I’ve seen many shorts that work because of their genre and attitude; not their narrative. I think The GHOSTS is one of those.

VI. What do you believe to be the biggest mistake short film writers commit?

– Not doing anything new. Repeating stories we’ve seen hundreds of times in the ways we expect.

VII. You seem to be a big fan of voice-over. What do you think this resource has to offer and why do you think so many writers fail to apply it properly?

– I think there’s something comforting about being told a story. I enjoy the lulling auditory quality of a narrator. I also think there’s a freedom that a narrator allows for a movie to move forward in time; backward; left, right, sideways. Films can be less linear with narrators. Less restricted. And they can also provide poignant counterpoint to the images on the screen.There’s a piece of narration in Stand By Me that’s always stuck with me. “The train had knocked Ray Brower out of his Keds just like it had knocked the life out of his body.” Totally brutal. That metaphor makes the dead body we’re seeing on screen so much more vivid and heartbreaking. And the mention of Keds. It evokes the dead boy’s youth and innocence. You can see him tying his shoes before leaving his bedroom for the last day of his life. It makes him relatable in a way he wasn’t earlier. At least to me it does. I have no idea why narration has such a bad wrap. People have all these rules against it I guess. Hot air.

VIII. How did you manage to finance your short films?

– Kickstarter and family. I’m very lucky.

IX. Do you believe short films are still a good “business card” to get into the industry?

– Yes. They got me representation.

X. Do you think that some ideas fit only in the short format?

– Absolutely. Some stories can be told in 10 pages of a screenplay and some take three volume novels.

XI. What does it take to make a great short film?

– A distinct point of view. Something that feels different. New.

XII. It’s really hard to find a short film with character development, however, The Ghosts does that quite well. Do you think that more short films should have characted driven plots?

– I wasn’t drawn to making The Ghosts because of character. For me it was about trying to capture an attitude and style. It was about trying to make a movie feel like an old garage rock song. Imperfect and rough around the edges. Loud. Bold. Character was secondary to The GHOSTS’ general spirit for me.

XIII. You’re already selling spec scripts and getting together into the feature film world, will you stick to the road and try to direct a feature film by now or will we see another short film by Eddie O’Keefe soon?

– Both hopefully. Stay tuned.

The value of a strong image

There are rules valid for either shorts or feature films and i believe that a strong image is the thing that divides good films from bad films.

Check the feature film business, possibly thousands screenplays are read and evaluated, yet only a few, like 1%, actually get bought. Being filmed is a totally different story. Hollywood has no reason to film bad screenplays, you may expect them to be at least well-rounded. However you still have bad films. Can we blame the screenwriter?

Perhaps. Even a screenplay with all the elements necessary to achieve a decent project might not be all it needs to score the jackpot, and i’m not only talking about selling a screenplay, but regarding the filmmaking of a remarkable picture.

After all, what’s the difference between a remarkable film and a forgettable one? I believe it resides in a strong image.

Viewers need something when they leave the theater, that thing that sticks to the person and knocks his mind before going to bed. Quick! Tell me one scene from Cimino’s The Deer Hunter! Russian roulette scene, right? Sometimes your story needs a single scene and don’t fuck up with the rest, yet, the Oscar-winner is quite a great picture besides the Vietnam War setup.

So don’t get me wrong, a blessed scene won’t make a whole picture, although it is part of the process. Sometimes the ‘remarkable’ aspect is in a character, pick for example the TV series House M.D. and its main character.

The most important and the objective you should strive for starts in the concept. The first stage of your film idea. That’s the place to find your strong image. You have possibly seem L.A. Confidential, written by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland. Here’s the IMDB logline:

As corruption grows in 1950s LA, three policemen – the straight-laced, the brutal, and the sleazy – investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.

10 years later, Curtis shows up with a new screenplay, with Eric Roth as a partner. Two badass screenwriters. Lucky you. Here the IMDB logline:

A hotshot poker player tries to win a tournament in Vegas, but is fighting a losing battle with his personal problems.

Let’s pretend you haven’t watched both movies. Tell me by the loglines which one is better. Do we all agree that L.A. Confidential has a better concept altogether?

This is like the magic of the film art, i can’t tell you for sure what is the formula for a remarkable movie, you won’t manage to tell yourself, though whenever you face any of those you’ll know. It’s the coffin Django carries along with him. That’s a strong image.

So it is not all about write by the book and input some heart into the story, to be remarkable there’s more in stakes. A good film is the one people talk about after the session. A scene. A character. A twist. A leitmotif. Whatever. Don’t bet on eternity at first, bet in the theater exit.

Forever is a consequence.

Objects are your best friends

Along the almost three months of Short of Stories, we presented several short films in which OBJECTS are the main characters.

In the article for the Short Formats series on Narrative Film, i’ve pointed out how Spider, by Nash Edgerton, revolves around the events triggered by this toy spider. Then we have an entire discussion while i reviewed Dave Green’s Ham Sandwich on magical amulets.

Other short films like Plot Device and The Black Hole also use objects as plot defining elements. The later three examples use magical amulets, which means that these objects are the core of the plot and they have superpowers, inserting something fantastical to the narrative. Most important is that these films develop under the complications lead by the use of this magical amulet. Meanwhile, Spider is different and suits us best because it uses a mundane object.

The point about objects is that they don’t need further explanation. A chair is a chair.  A toy spider is a toy spider. Unlike human characters as they demand explanation, empathy, depth. Spider works as a dark comedy because the actions derived from the object are completely unexpected from a toy spider.

Objects are tools, they don’t change, they just do. They don’t ask for a line of dialogue, neither for a conflict. But we must realize that as characters, main objects also put them into a change of values. All the example listed above make the objects turn from good/innocent to bad/guilty. Yet the objects don’t change, is just the way we see them after the incidents caused by them.

The friendship lasts even longer when we recall how good objects are as signs. They explain flashbacks and ellipses. What if you have a meeting of two characters whom used to know each other when children, but they don’t remember. Is a common object that will expose this recognition whenever it comes to the story.

You might have heard of the term MacGuffin, which is also a great device to abuse of objects, but there’s only a MacGuffin because there’s no need to explain objects. When you have a film in which the story surrounds on an unknown person, usually the entire movie is about it, as Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects.

Objects are portable symbols, so there’s unlimited possibilities, actually. Your main character received an object from his brother in the beginning of the film, but further revelations show some dirty skeletons at the brother’s closet and your main character must make a decision regarding him. That object can be the key to illustrate this turning point in the character.

Easily introduced, extremely malleable, objects are the duck tape for narrative issues. Keep them close, if you need an amulet to build something, make a list of  candidates. Array your options. If you use them properly you’ll achieve a great solution for your screenplay.



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