Friday, February 24, 2012
Part of me envies the hard sciences their certainty and limitations. I love that they can support the idea of a "right" answer. I know science is complicated and creative, too, and it's a fault that a lot of us have thinking science is somehow better founded than any other established and tested method or philosophy. But when you're writing and pulling threads and revising, who doesn't long for the all-knowing-reader who can look at what you've wrought and say, "yes, that's it. That's exactly what it needs to be. You've got it. Now move on."
Instead, the writer and reader occupy the same mind and imagination. They rarely agree and they never shut up, and each has its own list of "wouldn't it be great if--" changes they'd ideally like to make, given the time, perspective and sleep. Just as every artist works within a frame of some kind, artists desperately needs a frame, something to stop them from creating into madness. Self-expression is great, and really super fun, but at the end of the day or project, no matter how self-involved or self-deprecating the creator, we all really want an outside audience for the things we make. "For me, it's all about the music, man." Hooey! It's all about the music connecting people. If it doesn't do that, or if no one ever hears it and is affected by it, there is no "all about," there's just a tree falling in the woods making, we expect, some sound.
Part of it is certainly reality-check territory. "Is this [insert good, funny, scary, romantic, moving, understandable, inspired] or am I nuts?"
The "am I nuts" part of the question is really what that call for criticism or approval is all about, and it's much broader plea than you might thing. It's not really a question of sanity but of group identity. "Am I reading this right?" might as well be, "am I human, too?" because that's the crux of the anxiety. You tap your own experience, memories, feelings to find the building-blocks to create with, and that gets you to a certain albeit predictable point.
If you're brave and really dig deep, you discover the you under the you, that primal identity that would have made you who you are no matter how or where or with whom your life had played out. If you have the courage to reach that within yourself, you will have the root for anything you want to express or create, and it will matter almost universally to everyone who encounters it, because it will resonate so thoroughly with their primal selves, too. But if you're prone to cowardice and fears of censure, you dig sideways. You might think you're deep when all you do is squirrel around, painting warped windows into your personal psychoses.
Boy it stings when the answer comes back, "no, that's just you. Creep."
And back in the drawer it goes.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
As if there wasn't enough to obsess about, I get so hung up on names and titles. Even if I've got one of those amazing heads of steam built up and my fingers are flying across the keys, it careens to a halt if I have to introduce a new character by name. Sometimes I think it was easier to name my children than it is to settle on a fictional moniker.
I think my trouble centers on the whole first-impression and sum-up problem. Whoever you pitch or submit your original project to, they all want the short-hand version, the thumbnail, the sum-it-up-in-five-words-or-less version that either gets them excited or gives them a reason inside thirty seconds to kick you out of their office and get on with their day. Even though I'm a cartoonist, boiling down anything to a single, solid WHUMP I can deliver in quickie format is a huge obstacle. I mean, if I could have told the story in a sentence, I wouldn't have written six hundred pages. On the other hand, what working person has time to wade through six or a hundred pages or ten or even one? The pressure is on, and if you don't grab that audience in the first seconds of exposure, your first impression's gone, blown, and you're sitting in the hall wishing you'd remembered to ask before they shut and locked the door where to get your parking validated.
For me, the same is true for a character name or project title. And I do like everyone, keeping baby books on hand when I just have to hunt up a name. I try to note down any interesting names of people or places as they pop out at me. But when it comes to selecting and sticking to a name or title, my inner critic goes to town with my confidence. The usual name objections typically come from personal experience -- darn it, I knew a Cecil! I can't name him after that guy!
I am trying very hard to adopt the Bill Murray SNL technique. In an interview about the spectacular talet that was Gilda Radner, he said often when he was writing skits or if he got stuck, he'd actually write, "then Gilda does something funny." It was a great strategy because it kept him from getting hung up and stuck. Sure revision is its own nightmare, but revision is immensely more manageable obstacle than the blank-page or I-don't-have-an-ending syndrome.
So, I'm taking a lesson from Bill and naming every new character Gilda (Gil if it's a boy) to see if that can help me get over the hurdles and on to the end. Incidentally, I'm excited to announce I'm working on a new original script titled "Gilda" about Gilda and the brothers Gil, who do something funny.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I didn't know ice cream had a smell until I worked in an ice cream shop. It's not a bad smell, just distinctive, and after a few weeks working there, it pervaded my senses daily, whether I worked that day or not. I became hyper-alert to the scent of all things dairy, especially whipped sweet creams, and for a while there I thought I'd never be able to enjoy the stuff again.
Thankfully I only worked there one summer and, to the detriment of dietary discipline for years to come, I was able to re-acclimate myself to the wonderful flavors and textures of ice cream. But as a writer, that experience really brought home to me the notion of specific detail, the kinds of things only people neck-deep in something notice and obsess about, and the very details that excite my imagination and feed my love of history and research. One of my favorite discoveries is in Dickens' Bleak House when a young street orphan is given a gold sovereign coin, which in context for that kid was a ton of money and I thought should have made him happy--at first. But the kid wasn't happy, and Dickens takes pains to educate his readers that such a sum in an unbroken denomination is a major hazard for a little kid at the bottom of the social pecking order, who becomes an instant target of assault and robbery or accusations of theft walking around with gold in his pocket. And in fantasy tales, too, it's the little details that bring the text to life, dressing "world rules" in entertaining anecdotes that make readers forgive or just enjoy the exposition.
But the devil's in the details, and I have a devil of a time picking or committing to these kinds of things when it comes to defining character. It's the dance of plant and pay-off, and it's a tricky one for me to practice. Some people are all plant and pay-off, others all plot, others all character, and of course as writers we all have to master all of these areas. But the plant and pay-off that keeps paying off is a super-power I covet and struggle to develop.
Maybe it's the cartooning, but I find I can readily plant and pay-off in the short run. It's the long run character trait that I find I'm resisting, and I'm not entirely sure why. But as I write this and think of traits or "business" often attached to characters, I realize part of my problem is that real people who have overt, reoccurring traits are often really annoying. Smoking is a great one for film (less now for television with all the regulations about what can and can't be shown, which is why the only smoking characters do it off screen except on premium cable channels where they smoke like chimneys as if to make up the difference). For a writer, smoking as a character thing is a great bit of business because it is totally imbedded with so much stuff--there's the addiction factor, so a character can go in and out of withdrawal and craving cycles, there's all the physical stuff of smoking, lighters, matches, packages, trash, the thing itself whether it's a cigar or pipe or cigarette, and then there's the social integration factor, whether the character is a litterer or is conscientious and clean or disdainful. My favorite is the constantly trying to quit character (which you'll see a lot of on network TV because it's the only way to say "smoking" while also delivering the public service announcement message of "don't smoke, it's bad."), because showing someone resist throwing out a half-empty pack of cigarettes instantly externalizes and makes visual all that internal angst and struggle. It's a great short-hand.
But because it's so universal in human experience (and such an easy fix for a writer looking for a way to bring the internal out) it seems super over-used in television and films. Like curse words on cable, there's a novelty to it, but at some point you start to wonder if the writer can find any other way to say it. Of course, smoking has the added benefit, visually, of appearing beautiful, especially filmed black and white -- smoke is a great atmospheric, and watching a flirtatious scene with smoke-play between the characters can be such a dance of seven veils, it's scary-sexy...on film. Kinda stinky and carcinogenic in life.
I'm currently searching for some external behavior that can bring the internal out, and I'm having a hard time. I think that's because, like smoking, a lot of visual human behaviors that are somewhat unique tend also to be bad-mannered and sometimes gross. They're certainly not desirable. I should know. I was a career thumb-sucker for a while there, and I remember the looks that sometimes got, the disdain and disapproval from peers. And like nose-picking or finger-smelling or body-part-scratching, hair-twisting, lip-chewing and knuckle-popping, which are also self-soothing behaviors, they don't come with as much stuff as drug and nicotine habits. Then there are the lovable yet annoying repertoire of O.C.D. disorders (remember Monk? I loved Monk), which are versatile and often accompanied by assorted paraphernalia, but it's at risk of becoming the new smoking and equally over-used.
How do you short-hand I.D. characters to make them stand out and true to themselves without writing yourself in a corner? My question quest for the day. Brainstorm, anyone?
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
It's "V" Day!
Not of the conquering variety, though "conquest" might be a part of your festivities.
~ wink wink ~ nudge nudge ~
No, I'm talking cards and candy-hearts with mini-messages, chocolates and flowers, balloons and plushies, morning toast cut in the shape of hearts drizzled with honey from a smiling plastic bear. I mean reminding ourselves to reach in or down or under, find some love and spread it around.
Let PDAs and TLC abound!
And if that means Personal Digital Assistants and a channel on cable, here's a virtual hug for you:
(note the big squeeze in the middle)
Monday, February 13, 2012
So, this is what happened. My daughters and I had an appointment in downtown Los Angeles. We had to park in a conveniently adjacent structure separated by a generous access lane or easement. In normal terms, that means exiting an office building, crossing an access alley lane, and entering a parking structure.
In paranoid mom-escorting-pre-school-twins-alone terms, that meant catching ecstatic twins as they rocket out of the elevator before they zip into another open elevator for another "ride," getting each to hold one of my hands before we exit the building and any or all of us plummet the half-dozen concrete and steel steps of lethal brain-injury potential, stopping after surviving said steps and before dropping off the curb to check for any not-watching-slash-run-us-down cars, crossing the lane-and-a-half alley-of-doom without losing my grip on either twin (both of whom twist randomly and look for elevator or escalator ride opportunities), and get all three of our bodies up onto the opposite curb without any split-my-chin-on-the-curb tripping.
As we crossed the plane dividing the relatively safe inside from the hundred-hazards-a-second outside and just before we crested the Stairs of Imminent Injury, I noticed a lovely starlet and entourage headed our way. I recognized her at once, having seen her lately on a commercial, and I had a fleeting impression that she was as stunning and polished in person as I'd ever seen her on TV or film. In the alley was her almost cliche black SUV, around which her entourage of three or so hovered over bags and hesitated over their internal pecking-order, arguing in their unique code or short-hand over who got to follow on the heels of Miss Starlet and who had to lug all the darn stuff.
In the split second our paths crossed, I noticed two more things. Miss Starlet saw us coming (we were three-wide, after all, even if two of us are pretty little), and pleasantly braced for a confrontation. She's famous enough, she must get stopped often for autographs or whatnot, and to her credit her expression was lovely, steeled but smiling. But as we plowed ahead (I don't like stopping on stairs with tykes--they inevitably start to play, and before I know it end up bouncing out of reach and into triage--nightmare!), I also noticed the starlet flash something like startled disappointment.
I don't think she's used to being passed-by, or to yielding to others. Even non-famous beautiful people often enjoy presumed right-of-way because the rest of us simply enjoy taking a moment to watch them. But it wasn't until the three of us were in the car and safely belted that I relaxed enough to realize from the look I'd seen on her face that my face must have been expressing something like "get out of my way, I've got twins in hand!" Here she was, going about her day, minding her own business, yet making a concerted effort to greet (if we had stopped to bother her) perfect strangers and give us her time and attention, if only for a moment. Yes, she had things to do, but in just that brief encounter it was clear to me she was ready and willing to take time to greet a fan.
Maybe not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, no, but I was really impressed. And we almost never run into grand schemes. It's the mundane and the every day that really matter. Her pre-occupied entourage was not so gracious, and I almost mowed them down to get my girls to safety. We can't all be lovely all the time, though it would be nicer if we could.
Friday, February 10, 2012
I know a very talented composer/song-writer. Like so many in the music biz who blow my mind, he is versatile and able with a whole mess of instruments and can, all by himself, compose, arrange and record a full score's worth of music all by himself, playing every part, with a little home-recording equipment and mixer. Amazing. Because he insists on having ridiculous extravagances like uninterrupted health insurance and paying his bills in a timely manner, he teaches and manages in addition to composing, but he longs for a day when he a score gig, theme-song or recurring jingle pays well enough that he can devote his working days to music full time.
He landed a commercial, a national commercial, which doesn't equate to suddenly living in a beach house in Malibu but is, nonetheless, a monster big deal, especially to those of us still on the breaking-in side of any creative industry. He excitedly shared this fantastic news with his family, explaining that he'd sold an original song that would then be recorded and played, nation-wide, on multiple channels, etc. Very exciting stuff. Through it all, his mom uh-huhed and smiled and listened, and then said, "I don't see how this makes you money, though." He explained again about copyright and pay-per-play and rates varying by channel and exposure and repeated play. "Uh-huh," she said, still confused. "But why do they pay you for that?"
His big news fell like a stone. It was kicked around a little through dinner. Finally, he stopped trying to make his mom understand not only that he would earn money every time the song was used but that he deserved to be paid for each use. He returned to SoCal and LaLa Land a little heart-broken.
Family is such a funny thing. Nothing means more or is harder to get than a ringing family endorsement, and no rejection by colleagues, friends or strangers stings quite like an unenthusiastic, "it's nice but--" from a relation. It's especially problematic when your work is outside the familial expertise or taste. Help-books and friends tell you to harness these feelings, channel them into your work, because they are potent and real and universal, feelings rooted in the deepest love and respect --
These are the feelings that make lifelong careers!
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Whenever I'm cleaning up or putting away or scraping poo off my daughter's rain boot, I try to remember I am the hero of my own story. This is my saga. My time is now! So is yours.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I doubt it's as easy to be a critic as I like to think, but it's certainly easy to criticize, especially ourselves. So many times I catch myself side-tracking my creative process with concerns that what I'm doing or making or writing or drawing isn't good enough without batting that self-destructive question back to my inner critic (which is where all such stupid questions originate) with a "good enough for what?" Another good follow-up is for whom?
If you love art and the Arts (with a big A), it can be easy to confuse your creative process and what you do with sum total greatness of the greats who came before you. If you're really hard on yourself, you'll even pretend Rembrandt and Keats were not beholden to market factors like finding funding, reaching the right audience, and paying rent.
None of them--let me say that again because it's important and bears repeating--NONE WERE GREAT FROM THE START! Every great artiste drops some pretty stinky bombs on occasion, some which sell and some that don't. And they all have to eat.
Even the jokers who had patrons a-plenty in their pockets, the ones who slept with all the right people or had perfect raw talent straight out of the womb, even they (and I've no idea who I'd be talking about now) self-censored, catered to the tastes of others, were frustrated by the limits of their own talent and materials, prayed for more or less time, better inspiration, faster results and more efficient productivity.
Art does not begin as Art. It doesn't typically finish as Art, either. It starts small, sometimes as only a fraction of an idea or feeling. Sometimes it's allowed to find its way like a child in the woods, learning and evolving as goes. Other times, like a child in the woods, it gets battered or eaten, its remains found by the child-ideas tripping along behind it, who then run back to you shattered and scarred...
Maybe not the best simile.
I sometimes hear people say movies or television are so formulaic.
"Oh, snore. That's so predictable."
Well, of course it's predictable. Shakespeare is predictable. You knew it was predictable, you wanted it to be predictable, that's why you chose to be an audience in front of a screen or stage instead of doing extreme sports or taking over a small country or whatever else you might've done during that time. The trick (and if you can pull this off in your writing, your audience will love you forever) is to wed predictability with freshness. Part of the delight of experiencing art (and the skill involved in making it) is when something absolutely predictable still manages to surprise. But if you write within the genre, the patterns and structure will still be there. There will be a beginning. There will be a problem. It will get complicated. After significant struggle, there will be a resolution, often from some seemingly minor detail you remember from waaaay back at the beginning. And when it's over, you'll feel smarter than the formula but satisfied your expectations were met. After all, it's not free-form space-jazz accompanying alien performance art you're viewing, it's mass-market entertainment, and if it didn't hit your specific yippee-button this time or alter your very existence, tough nuts. That's your job. That's called living.
If you're an artist or a writer, the last thing you should think about is whether or not what you're making is Art. At minimum, it is art, no question, so start there. Focus on the purpose, on the idea, on the thing itself, and if that means focusing on the deadline or the frame or the project specs or the forumula, do that. Because everything that ever went from art to Art first had to be made.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Yep, did that today. Yep, was awesome. Yep, feel like a super-something-awesome and the endorphins are only just now wearing off. Here's to the year of the dragon and not letting life get in the way.
Monday, February 6, 2012
Friday, February 3, 2012
I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "film is a lie at 24 frames per second." Well, that's true, of course, because a film is not life, it's a construction. Even a documentary cannot be anything other than a construction. But in openly-admitted fiction that is in no way trying to be True, how much is true by necessity?
A common debate you'll hear throughout the humanities centers on how much of the artist is evident in the art. How much of what's written is the writer? There are whole schools of criticism that take up variations of that one question. You can build a whole career in critical studies just exploring auteur theory. Way back when, one of my professors (also a novelist) was deeply annoyed we (his idiot students) kept making assumptions about an author based a novel he wrote. For instance, one of the characters was quite perverse which prompted our creative interpretations of what the author believed about sex and women and sundry accoutrements. The discussion got pretty detailed, and gross, and my professor ended up throwing a chair to get our attention back.
I had yet to brave the admission I was, myself, a writer. Publishing cartoons and writing all the time were my hobbies and side-lines, things I knew I would do for the rest of my life, but only in addition to a real career. Because no-one writes books or draws cartoons for a living. Those rare exceptions I saw in the newspaper or magazines or bookstore were freaks of nature or products of nepotism or luck. They were not regular, real people from no-where like me. Regular, real people from no-where go into law or medicine or other linear careers of easily measured success (apologies to the lawyers, doctors, and others laughing at me right now, but these were the assumptions of my juvenile mind). I had not yet faced the fact that I was headed for a creative career, so I didn't yet realize having any sort of audience meant I, too, was going to have to brave being exposed. As a multi-panel cartoonist, I joked I was a "stripper" by trade. I didn't realize at the time how very accurate that would be.
Creating anything--even if you couch it in lies and call it fiction--is a kind of personal striptease. Naturally, everything we "create" on some level reflects who and what we are. Even intentionally avoiding subjects, settings, events, or characters from personal history is revealing. No wonder it's such a daring and nerve-wracking thing to do. I get nervous as bathing-suit weather approaches, I certainly don't feel any more confident showing my insides as well as my outsides. When I started considering a creative career, I engaged in ridiculous fantasies to keep myself hidden. I'd write under pseudonyms, use caricatures instead of photos of myself, hire an actor to stand in for me at public functions:
"And the award goes to...Jody Lindke. Playing Jody this evening and accepting on her behalf, please welcome Vin Diesel."
What's almost worse than feeling so self-conscious is the counter-impulse of feeling supremely vain. Creative expression strikes the insecure me as a narcissistic act of screaming on paper, "look at me!" My inner-critic is fat and happy as it goes to town mixing low-self-exteme with guilt-generating shame, and the result, I've discovered (as it was recently pointed out to me again) is I chronically hold back in my work.
I'd been dealing with rejections and couldn't help asking myself over and over "what do they want?"--they in this case being publishers and producers and agents and readers and every level of gate-keeping in between--and I did this within hearing of a friend who reminded me, "what they want, really, is a piece of your soul." Did you feel a chill? 'Cause I sure did. If I didn't want to share my visage with others, I certainly didn't feel any more confident exposing any fraction of my soul to derision. I wasn't gonna do it. There had to be a way out. I had to be able to pretend convincingly enough to keep myself separate--and safe--and still create compelling fiction and films.
Looking at the stories I revisit most, the shows and films and books I turn to, I realized it's not only true, that bit about the soul, it's right that it's true. It is just. It is good.
It's also really, really, really intimidating...
Whether you're consuming art or creating it, you're engaged in an act of sharing, and what you're sharing is yourself, your humanity--y'know, that thing supernatural or immortal creatures always envy in us, that thing we always recognize in friendly aliens from other worlds and never find in the ones who want to eat us. That thing is what makes a good story great, that makes us laugh and cry and feel we not just engaged with art but experienced it.
I thought I was done with a particular bit of fiction. It does all the things it needs to do. It's funny, it's moving, it's got a plot, plants have pay-offs...but some parts feel clipped, some opportunities lost, because I'd approached it as a story about "those people" in "that place," and kept myself away from it. So what could be great is only good. If I dig in and let that bit of soul I've been hoarding show, if I scrape down to expose the raw, real emotion and pain of what I'm writing about, it could be one of those stories you can't look away from or forget, the kind of story that becomes as real and personal as lived memory. Drama is action driven by feeling, and I hadn't wanted to feel what drove the actions I'd written about. I'd written about death and fear and lust and love and joy, but I'd protected myself, kept my clothes on, kept my humanity to myself. It's intimidating to think of an audience seeing this and saying, "this is Jody's fear and lust and love and joy," reducing me to what fragments of myself slipped through. I don't want the censure or humiliation. If I invest myself and the work is rejected, I lose the self-soothing, "well, that wasn't really me." However much I give any piece of writing, it is by nature a construction, but if I only ever play it safe, my work can never be more than artifice.
Striptease may be an art, but making art is a striptease. You can't hide and create.
I often say story lets us live surrogate lives, but I realize now that's only possible when the teller is courageous enough to give real life to it. That bit of soul they want is where Truth with the capital "T" resides. Art doesn't give us feelings of strength or courage or empathy or solidarity or love or loss or hope. Art stimulates real feelings because real feelings were put into that art. Feeling is the heart (note the phrase) of story. That's what gives it the power to teach, to reveal our humanity, to cement our connectedness and acknowledge our fragility. Dismissing it by calling it "fiction" is kind of naive.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
It's awards season. Festivals, viewer and professional award nominations are flooding the industry news, getting everyone excited and anxious to do new business. For those in the rapids, congratulations and hang on tight! For those on the shore, use the lull to gear up for next time. And for those in between, do your best to stay afloat. When it comes to scripted entertainment, sometimes just not going under deserves recognition and applause.
This season is always bitter sweet for me. It brings to mind past projects: the surprise when something you didn't realize was kinda good got some recognition, the suffocating silence when something you thought would do better isn't noticed at all. It's a funny business.
I had the great privilege of screening short films I worked on at festivals, at school, and at the DGA. Like with writing anything, when you're involved in the making of a film, it's difficult to get the perspective and distance you need to actually see the film. It's tough to see the edit for what it is when you're bogged down by memories of the making of the thing. Maybe you can't see past the actor who seemed fine until he got drunk on set and felt-up half of your some-still-slightly-under-age, all-volunteer crew. Or maybe you're stuck staring at the actress who swore she'd cut her hair to get the part but then refused half-way through production so the final third of the film doesn't make any sense. Or the scene that should have had the hunky guy you already filmed for the plant scene but who didn't show up to shoot the pay-off, and you couldn't afford re-shoots so you never re-cast and what should have been a comedy isn't funny or even all that dramatic, so you're generally screwed. Yeah, sometimes it's like that.
Like every department or component in any scripted entertainment, casting is crucial. I won't say "casting is king" because we've all seen counter-examples and scripted entertainment, whether for the stage or the screen (of any size), is a team sport. Quarterbacks and pitchers can't win by themselves, and a cast is nothing without a crew is nothing without a writer is nothing without a financier is nothing without... Well, if financiers find themselves without, at least they have the means to buy it. But I stand by the rest. Back to casting.
It's a strange thing to be on the choosing side of casting. I feel a little unambitious admitting I never used the "casting couch" as an opportunity to fleece someone for money or favors or to solicit border-line illegal "personal contact." Talk about lost opportunities, right? I found it challenge enough to just be at that table because I know what it's like to be on the other side.
There are many, many, many reasons I'm not an actor. One biggie, I took theater in high school, where I learned that the anxieties typically associated with the audition side of a casting session pretty far exceed my anxiety threshold. I'm always impressed when I meet (I'll add sane or happy) actors because what they do is really, really hard, and I don't mean performing. Performing is an entirely different brand of difficult. I mean auditioning, walking in cold, doing your thing (or their thing if there are sides), and walking out with no expectation of hearing from anyone, ever, about how you did or why you didn't get the job when you later see the film or show or program or commercial or print-ad or whatever. That's really tough, and I find the people who can embrace that life and stress and remain whole with family and sanity intact are beyond remarkable. Kudos.
Though it is really important in film school to work on as many of your classmates projects as you can (every project is a massive learning experience and every crew position, no matter how unglamorous or seemingly unimportant, will teach you buckets about producing and getting the most from yourself and your work), one of the best things about film school was the push to make us cast real actors. "Don't rely just on your classmates," soon became, "you will post ads, you will audition, you will cast real actors, or you will fail this class," and thank goodness it did, because nothing less would have gotten me to do it.
There are several things you can expect to see in indie- and student films that scream cheap and cliche but which can be great if done with some exceptional flare or skill: major scenes shot entirely on a couch, games of chess or prominently featured chess boards and pieces (often to indicate intelligence otherwise lacking in the character, writing, and film), protagonists running alone in metaphoric pursuit or metaphoric flight, over-use of close-ups, flat space, ridiculously severe stripy lighting justified by window blinds, no apparent ceilings coupled with obvious set-seams, twinkle-lights and generic neon signs... Actually, it's a pretty long list and probably deserves a post unto itself. Anyway, one of my shorts (prominently featuring too much flat-space, too many close-ups, and no ceilings whatsoever) embraced the reformed vampire cliche. It's one of my favorites. I don't like bullies or human predators, but I love a good redemption tale, and vamps typically have a lot to answer for.
My film was about a latch-key kid who finds a vampire, knows what it is, and adopts him. It doesn't end well. Subtle, right? Since vampires are heart-and-hand with sex and violence, I wanted to cast a very attractive grown man as my predator and a bright-eyed, prepubescent girl for my latch-key kid for added yet subtle tension. Sh'yeah. Okay, not subtle at all, but that's what I was looking for, and I tried to keep an open mind, and I found it! The girl was terrific, inside and out, with a wonderful "stage mom" whose first and only priority was her daughter (not always the case with child performers and their moms). For the vampire, I was torn between two actors. One was fair, the other dark, one lanky the other beefy. How to decide?
When you're casting, you try to keep an open mind, partly because what you think you're looking for might not exist, and partly because preconceived tunnel-vision can blind you to discovering something great yet unexpected that an actor might bring to the role. Every project lives for those moments, those hidden and inspired opportunities, and as a filmmaker and story-teller you struggle to keep yourself open enough to recognize them. Both actors were easy on the eyes and willing to commit the significant time for rehearsals, shooting, sitting for mouth-molds so I could get prosthetic fangs made. But one just had more of a "killer" vibe. The other was a good actor, very personable, kind, smart, funny, with a terrific, easy-going smile that just lit up the room and made me (and by extension, would make my audience) want to know him more--a very charming guy. I knew at once he'd be easy to work with even on long, long shooting days. But the other guy--and it's magical when this happens in casting, when you stumble on that "it" factor, that "wow" moment where an actor just becomes or is exactly what you're looking for even though you didn't know until that very moment that's what you needed and wanted and can't do without--he just had this perfect and ominous je ne sais quoi that screamed "I'm a predator." He was perfect.
But when I prompted him later to improvise a scene where he's "cheering up a sad child" at, say, an airport or doctor's office, his same je ne sais quoi also whispered, "I might gut you between takes just to see the color of your insides." And that was for "cheering up a child."
I cast the smiling Mr. Personable. I was instantly rewarded by my instincts being confirmed. He took the job seriously, was prompt and punctual and we got the prosthetic teeth molds and he was really supportive and friendly in the best possible way with the ten-year-old on set. The prosthetic fangs were perfect and very believable in proportion, color and size. Mr. Personable was so great, I was able to focus exclusively on the billion other problems that is shooting a student film, including re-writing the script almost from scratch mid-way through shooting because between lost locations and time there was no way what I wrote could be shot.
Through it all, Mr. Personable smiled beautifully. Because he couldn't not smile.
Not even when he wanted to.
This discovery was not made until dailies, which for this project meant half-way through production. We'd shot the "temptation" scene, a dirty close-up of our killer face-to-face with the vampire-buffet that is a healthy little girl's pulsing throat. He played it well, all in the eyes, and we could even see the flutter of her artery -- the shot really worked -- as his lips part and we see...no fangs. Couldn't see the teeth. Over and over, close-up after close-up, all burned film, all losses from budget and time, weeks of time and money in the one and only custom-prop, but not one shot, not once were the fangs visible. Something I hadn't noticed about Mr. Personable until dailies was his mouth had a naturally smiling shape to it, lifting quite pleasantly at the corners, but also dipping slightly more than I anticipated from the corner to the mid-quarter of the lip, a dip perfectly suited not only to completely cover his incisors, but the extended fake fangs as well.
Back to set we went knowing what we had to do--maximize exposure of those fangs. Without fangs, the character just looked like some creepy, pale guy following a ten year old girl home. Without fangs, the tension was less predator vs. meal and more imminent child-rape, which is still evil vs. good in theme, but a noir of an entirely different shade and one I had no intention of re-writing to accommodate. So, I laid it out, and he agreed -- we had to see the fangs!
That's when we discovered he couldn't grimace. The particular shape of his mouth and the development of his facial muscles which made him look so pleasant meant he could not sneer or snarl or bare his teeth in any menacing way to save his life. And he tried. He really worked at it. Dude was totally committed to the role (and only working for copy and credit! God, I love actors!), but he couldn't not smile, and teeth-gnashing of any kind was impossible.
Back went the fangs, priority rush, for modification. Back to the edit bay, emergency panic, to figure out what was usable and what wasn't. Back to the computer, frantic revision, because the film we started shooting wasn't possible, even with the changes we made to deal with the lost locations and time remaining. Duly regrouped, we completed production...by embracing additional student-film cliches: ridiculous make-up, over-use of music for lacking transitions, reveal-it-was-all-a-dream plot re-shuffle, and the classic we-can't-resolve-this-story-in-a-satisfying-way suicide ending.
Obvious block-buster material. It's how I made my first million. [insert laughter here]
We finished it, the culmination of half a semester of overwhelming amounts of work and a life-threatening lack of sleep. I think it's six minutes long. Including the credits.
Two years later, having finally saved up enough money to have my "negative cut" (this sucker was shot on real, physical film, mixed and screened off a telecined work-print), I enjoyed one final surprise student-film cliche: lost negative. Somewhere between the school and the film development house, exactly one reel of my film negative was misplaced, making it impossible to cut the negative and produce a finished film complete with (drum roll, please) optical mono-track sound transferred from hand-cut magnetic film! Yeah!
Personable as ever, Mr. Personable would've done re-shoots in a heartbeat -- a consummate worker and just that kind of guy. But my latch-key kid went from ten to twelve, and in girl terms that's something like six inches taller, plus braces on her teeth--no way new footage would cut. There ended any possibility of a formal screening, of festival submission, of cutting DVDs. Not my favorite take-away from the student film-making experience, but a valuable lesson in blind trust, film storage and archiving.
Aside from some seriously bitter disappointment at not being able to "time" and complete a finished print, I've never once looked back on this project and been sorry, especially about my cast and crew. I got to shoot some stuff I'm really, really proud of, even if almost no-one will ever see it. When I say I learned, I say it with major italics. Ultimately filmmakers are just viewers who also happen to make films, so it's no surprise that what makes for a great movie or show viewing experience also makes for a terrific production experience. Writers sometimes like to say, "it's an important story," or a "valuable tale," but good stories really boil down to the people in 'em, whether they're part of the action or the telling. It's the people involved that make a story meaningful and the time communicating it well spent.
I've gotten to work with some supremely kind and diligent people who gave their absolute all. In this case, it was just to help tell a six-minute story pre-loaded with problems and cliches. And it's still one of my favorites.