The (Exhausting) Reality of Film Production

Film production is tiring. Everyone knows that, right?  But what exactly do we define as exhausting in our industry?

Most “civilians” work 8, sometimes 10 hours in a day. This is a “normal” work day for them. Industry folk on the other hand consider anything less than 12 hours to be a short day, and if you somehow miraculously work only 8 hours, it’s called an “8 and skate” as you breeze in and breeze out so quickly. I must apologize if this seems a bit disjointed, but I just worked 47 hours in 3 days, you see.

I was lucky enough to crew on one of the top scripted cable TV shows of the Summer, and this week production on season two started up again. Awesome people to work with, from the top down, but the hours can be a wee tad brutal. A 70 to 80 hour week is not impossible when things really need to be shot, though production does all they can to avoid those situations. Still, sometimes it happens, and when it does, you’re looking at working double the weekly hours of normal folks. You don’t know tired until you’ve had to finish work at 3am on Saturday morning, only to have a 5am call time on Monday.

Of course this is nothing compared to music videos. Those notoriously run 18 or more hours in a day.  Yes, 18+.  My personal longest was a 25 1/2 hour video shoot in the desert. One director actually did a 35 hour shoot, though we all wonder what quality you get at that point. Mind you he is one of the top directors in the world, but come on already, these hours are why people die driving home.

Why post this? Because the reality of production is often far less glamorous and incredibly more exhausting than people realize. I still recommend you follow your dreams and do all you can to get into the industry if that’s what you want, but just do so with your eyes open. Of course as you now realize, that’s something that gets increasingly difficult to do as the weeks pass. In fact my eyes can barely stay open right now.

Anyway, this is disjointed and I am dain bramaged, so methinks I’ll post and edit a bit later when the ol’ noggin is firing on more pistons.

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Living the Good Death – An 8 on The Black List

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Sharing a bit of good news.

I recently posted my supernatural romantic comedy Living the Good Death to The Black List after making some revisions to it following input from the site’s paid readers. Several really astute observations were made, and after thinking about them and making some changes, I finally arrived at a draft that I felt achieved my expectations.

The result? An Industry Member just rated it an 8.

Having a busy industry member choose to read the script of their own free will and enjoy it enough to take the time to rate it really brings me joy. We know how busy people are in this industry, so it means a lot to me.

I’d venture a guess that many of you would agree that whether or not a script is ever produced, just being able to entertain a reader with a story spawned from your noggin that they truly enjoy is a really good feeling for any writer. I for one hope to ride this wave of happy feelings well into the next script I’m currently outlining. Hopefully people will find that one enjoyable as well one day.

Not all Script Readers are Created Equal

As writers, I think most of us would agree that it’s pretty fair to say we all tend to have a fairly well developed sense of self-worth, at least when it comes to our writing. Though our styles may vary wildly, we like our work and believe in it, otherwise we’d have given up long ago. So when we finally manage to get a script in the door at an actual reputable production house, that means we’ve finally got a chance to have our craft appreciated by people who “get it”, right?

A fellow writer just informed me that his son is now a reader for a well-respected Hollywood producer. His kid is the fabled gatekeeper we have to entertain if we hope to make it past those high walls and onto the producer’s desk. There’s just one problem. This kid is an idiot.

Now I don’t have anything against him, but his own father said as much, lamenting that a kid who doesn’t know the first thing about scriptwriting, formatting, structure, or basically anything crucial to telling a good story, is now (purely through social connections and no actual skills whatsoever) the guy who determines who makes it to round 2.

Disheartening? Well, it certainly doesn’t inspire a dance of joy, that’s for certain. Now we all know that it’s a crapshoot with readers anyway. If you’re like me, you’ve had great reviews and horrible reviews, sometimes concurrently for the same unedited piece of work, so perhaps having a neophyte rating your work doesn’t surprise you. It certainly explains those outlier reviews that leave you scratching your head, wondering, “Does this person know the first thing about moviemaking?” But having those worst suspicions confirmed is still a wee bit lamentable.

Funny enough, I posted recently on the need to write for you, to not try and tailor your work into what you think a gatekeeper wants. Everyone’s taste is different, there’s no pleasing them all, and we almost never know who is going to be reading our scripts. If, however, you happen to know your reader has a non-entertainment background such as my friend’s son (and if the gatekeeper is also the reader, this is where being friendly during phone calls can pay off ) perhaps a bit more flourish to the script to appeal to their taste might help you make a favorable impression. Personally, I’m of the belief that directors and actors should decide the beats that work for them, but then again, before they can turn our words into action we must first entertain the gate-reader enough to score that sought after “Recommend” so our scripts can make it to their desk in the first place.

Conundrum

Film Industry Pyrotechnics

You know all those machine gun hits that make televisions and computers go BOOM and spark all over the place? Well our friendly neighborhood FX guys tested one the other day to show the director of an upcoming episode they were prepping. I thought I’d share, seeing as how most folks haven’t actually seen these things without gunfire and sound effects.

Spark

So this one is gunfire shorting out a computer monitor… minus the gunfire and computer monitor. Not so exciting by itself, minus all the gunfire and screaming, eh? Movie magic at its finest! /s/

Writing for Script Readers and Gatekeepers

Do you write what you want to write, or do you write to try and please/get past the gatekeepers? Perhaps if you’re one of the fortunate few, you’ll have it be one in the same.

I recently had a chance to reflect while I was looking through some old scripts from back when some partners and I formed a small production company. This was right before the catastrophic 2008 financial crash, so you can imagine what happened to our funding. Still, it was interesting being on that side of the table, even if only briefly. One key aspect that struck me was the difference in scripts each member wound up liking and how our backgrounds factored in.

Unlike my neophyte partners who were quite new to the film industry, I come from a film background, having worked below the line in the industry since the late 1990’s. When my partners and I got down to reading, I found I tended to read scripts with a shooting budget and schedule in mind. Sure I wanted an enjoyable read, but I was equally interested in the nuts & bolts of what it would take to actually make the project come to fruition. I wanted a sparse script with limited descriptions so we could take the underlying story, which obviously needed to be sound, and shoot it as needed to fulfill the director’s vision. My partners, on the other hand, seemed to want to be entertained by the read. Now I want to enjoy the read as much as the next guy, but sometimes you can cut many pages off a script simply by trimming extraneous descriptions. Ultimately it depends on who the reader is.

In my own writing, for a brief while I actually started trying to write two versions of my scripts, a “fun read” version and a “let’s shoot this” version (basically a stripped down shooting script). Nowadays I just go for a mix of the two as best I can. Entertain, yet keep things tight. No one wants to read a 150 page screenplay.

Spec scripts, I feel, are in some ways held to higher standards than commissioned works. Established writers with a sale lined up, or at least an established track record, can afford to be sparse in their style. People know their stories are good and can fill in the beats/blanks themselves. As an unpaid/unknown spec writer on the other hand, you need to not only have a good story, but must also amuse and entertain a reader if you hope to make it past that particular type of gatekeeper. This means realizing that some readers will want you to include beats that may make for better reading but really should be left for the director and actors to flesh out. In fact I once received notes on a script from two different readers that were at complete odds with one another. One wanted more of the beats and descriptions while the other wanted less of them.

Therein lies the rub, finding that fine line between crafting an engaging read, and having a tight script that is free of extraneous clutter. I recently read excerpts of the screenplay to recent film The Equalizer. While I personally thought the story was rather bland overall, what impressed me was the refreshing clarity of the well crafted yet sparse descriptions. The writer left it to the director and Denzel to flesh out the characters and the story world to their desires. Of course you can afford to write that way when you’re specifically hired by those very people to write a draft. I’ve seen a lot of production scripts that would likely be tossed in the slush pile if they were specs and not production pieces, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this observation.

So what’s my takeaway from all this?

Just write. Write for you. Write the way you feel you shine. Don’t try to write just what you think a reader wants. One person may love your style, another may hate it, but there really isn’t any one formula that will satisfy the tastes of every single person. By all means, keep the needs of gatekeepers and producers in mind, but don’t let that be your one guiding light. If you second guess every sentence you write, you’ll most likely wind up with an end result that pleases neither the reader nor yourself.

Screenwriting Contests: Worth It?

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Not too long ago, my pilot Blowback was a semi-finalist in the Industry Insider Television Writing Contest. I was elated. Even if I didn’t make it further in the rankings (no, I didn’t make the finals), it was still good to feel my concept was perceived as a viable television show (a very Burn Notice-esque show with a “Blue Skies” type appeal). Anyway, since then I’ve been looking into other contests and competitions to see which, if any, might be beneficial to enter my feature and pilot scripts.

We all know by now that there are a bevy of contests to enter, but so far as I can tell, only a handful appear to have a sound enough reputation to bolster your script by your doing well in them alone. Nicholl, Page, Trackingb, Austin, Blue Cat, those are among the handful that seem to have the clout to make that kind of a splash, but I think a common question we all have is is it worth submitting to others, especially the lesser known ones?

My personal opinion is unless you’ve got a track record, it can really be worth while to have your work judged completely objectively against your peers. More than just getting an idea if a particular coverage reader likes your work or not, a contest can give you something a Pass/Recommend doesn’t; namely an idea where your work stands when directly compared to others. If you make quarter or semi-finals, you know you’re on the right track. Make it to the finals or even place? That’s great validation of your work.

Another benefit is the ability to give someone a reason to go into your script hoping for or expecting a good read, not fearful of stumbling into a bad one. Which would you be more likely to assume will be at least a decent read, a Scriptapalooza semi-finalist or an unknown writer’s cold submission? Of course contests can be expensive, so we all have to decide if the benefit is worth the cost.

Now some people enter every contest under the sun, which is fine, but seems a tad excessive in my opinion. Personally, when I see a list of a dozen contests for one script I can’t help but feel the writer would be better served by listing the key wins or rankings, then offering further accolades upon request. Maybe it’s just me, but too many contests listed looks cluttered and just reminds me of resumé padding. Again, that could just be my skewed perception.

Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. Contests are great for some and not for others, but I do believe there is something to be said for a competitive environment where you don’t just get notes, but also get to see where you stand in the pack.

Scottish Foxes and Posh Superheroes

Inspired by a conversation with my Scottish friend Gillian, here’s an odd little short story I whipped up for shits & giggles following a late-night chat that somehow devolved into a bizarre conversation about posh superheroes and rebel foxes.

Those Damned Foxes

A pack of slender shapes darted through the shadows of the small London suburb, tails held high in the air, ears pointed and alert. The foxes were on edge as they quietly scurried through the streets, clamoring and nosing their way into whatever nooks and crannies they could fit. An open window here, an unattended gate there, and perhaps once in a while, even a door opened by a mysterious gloved hand, wrist cuffs fraying from wear and years of nipping fox bites.

The hungry canines spread out in all directions, searching the homes they found accessible, noses twitching at a hummingbird pitch, scavenging for any scrap of food. “So Hungry” they all thought in unison.

Some of the foxes were stealthy in their nature, and those were the select few most likely to survive the night’s ordeal, spiriting away to the countryside whilst clinging to the shadows if they were lucky. Others were less cautious, their hunger making them reckless in their decisions. Occasionally one even took an ill advised taste of a sleeping human child, though not for desire of eating it but rather to lick clean the sticky remnants of jam and scones smudging the young one’s hands and cheeks, the raspy tongue waking the youth to the unexpected sight of a furry face and bright white teeth.

Screaming most typically comes next.

Parents, naturally, do not appreciate this.

They dislike it so much in fact that they chased the foxes with brooms and sticks, yelling angry oaths whilst sending the furry intruders fleeing into the night.

A shabby man in a well-worn mackintosh watched it all happen from the shadows as he leaned against his pristine van. He checked his watch,, then closed the rear door to his van and slowly climbed back in, starting the engine with a quiet cough before heading off down darkened streets.

In his wake the townsfolk had taken to the streets, yelling and hollering while chasing foxes from their doorsteps. “Out you damn vermin! Out I say!” shouted a blubbery man wearing an enormous mustache but not much more as his mass jiggled from his porch.

“Mr. Olsen” exclaimed his elderly neighbor, “What ever are we to do about these horrible foxes?”

“I think there’s only one thing we can do Mrs. Smith.” With that he picked up his telephone and dialed a 3-digit number. “Yes, hello? I’m afraid we have a fox problem, it’s really quite out of hand. Do you think they’d be able to find time to come help us common folk?” he asked into the handset. “Yes, of course, we’ll light it right up. Thank you so much.” The man turned, looking up the road, calling to a young boy watching the commotion from his window. “Tommy,” the man called out, “light it up, they’re willing to come to our aid.”

Tommy shut his window with a bang, then stepped out of his house, scurrying up the street at a quick run, dodging foxes as he went. Moments later a loud metallic clanging could be heard as faces appeared in windows.

“Oh, is someone lighting it?”

“Are they really going to come?”

“I hope I can get an autograph!”

The sky flickered for a moment as the enormous light came on, a massive image of a bugle clearly emblazoning the sky.

“It’ll only be a matter of time now” said Mrs. Smith, “I think at last we can all breathe a sigh of relief.”

Back in the stables on their 300 acre estate (the small Summer parcel they sometimes gathered at), The Posh Crusaders sipped their tea and nibbled on finger sandwiches as they gazed up at the sigil lighting the sky.

“Well, it’s about time.” Said Sir Richard Excellent Dibbley. “Damn plebs have kept us waiting for hours already.

The van pulled up and the shabby man approached. “Sir,” he said, “forty-seven foxes on the High Street as instructed.”

“Thank you Henson, that will be all for now.” Replied Sir Richard. “Alright team, it’s time to remind those commoners why the aristocracy shall always prevail. Lord Hamish Amazing MacKay nodded his approval.

“Very well Sir Excellent, let’s be off then. Lord Fantastic, Dame Incredible, gather the others, we ride in 10 minutes!”

The townspeople peered anxiously through the streets as shapes flittered in the dim light, both people and foxes alike, when a sharp bugle cry cut through the night. “It’s them, they’re coming!” shouted young Danny Fay. And sure enough, they were indeed coming.

The Posh Crusaders were a sight to behold as they slowly rode their enormous steeds down the street, black boots glistening in the pale moonlight, white pants crisp and clean, red coats blazing on their backs. Acutely aware of the eyes on them, they held themselves with the air of the elite, of the ruling class, of the aristocracy.

Sir Excellent scanned the scene and spoke. “Citizens. Commoners. You have called for our assistance and we are now come in your hour of need. He paused, allowing the common people to take in the sight of his majesty.

You sir,” he said, pointing at Mr. Olsen, “where are these scurrilous vermin from which you are in such dire need of rescuing?

Mr. Olsen pointed and stammered an incoherent reply, so glad was he at the sight of the Posh Crusaders.

Sir Excellent gave him a quick nod, then turned to his snooty compatriots.

“Crusaders, ride!”

A blare of bugles filled the night air, followed by the yowling of the Aristo-Hounds as they ran down the streets and alleyways, barks bouncing off the walls, echoing this way and that. The mounted heroes, though lacking capes (Lord Amazing had once floated that idea but it was voted down faster than the spandex unitard suggestion from Lady Stupendous) galloped forth to their task, and in a short but bloody frenzy the neighborhood was soon cleansed of the horrible fox menace.

The air had taken on a calmer feel, and Henson loaded the dead foxes into his van while The Posh Crusaders signed autographs and took pictures with the commoners. “Who do I make it out to?” asked Lord Amazing, the star-struck girl looking at him in awe.

Finally “Crusaders, mount up!” called Sir Excellent.

Once more astride their mounts, the heroes turned and rode off, but not before heartily shouting out, “Long live the aristocracy!” to which the grateful townsfolk replied in kind, “Long live the aristocracy!” and applauded as their saviours rode off into the night.

Back at the estate, Sir Excellent stood at the wash basin in the stables, dabbing specks of fox blood from his gloves.

“Forty four of the forty seven this evening Sir.” Said Henson.

“Only three missing this time? Not bad. Next week let’s make it an even fifty, shall we Henson?”

“Indeed sir, I’ll inform the kennels.”

“The people will always need the aristocracy Henson” Sir Excellent said to himself, admiring his strong jaw in the mirror. “It’s the natural order of things.”

“Yes sir, right you are sir.

In a small dugout on the outskirts of town, three weary and filthy shapes slithered into a gap between some boards, entering a long shuttered factory.

Suddenly a bright light shone down upon on them and a harsh voice barked out, “Password!”

The dazed foxes quickly gathered themselves, standing straight. “Bannockburn!” they replied in unison.

The spotlight went out, replaced by a dim glow illuminating the cavernous ruins. As their eyes quickly adjusted, the three saw their fox brothers and sisters in great numbers from floor to rafters. In fact they’d never seen this many foxes in one place, not even in the Posh Crusaders’ secret kennel.

One particularly large and grizzled fox padded over to them, sniffing their tails. “Good” he said, “Very good indeed.” The newcomers looked at him, curiosity in their eyes, but also a tinge of fear. This fox had an air of something different about him. Ah yes, an Alpha.

“The humans are getting more careless, soon our numbers will be great enough to reclaim what’s ours.” Said the burly fox.

“Can it be possible?” asked the youngest of the three newcomers, “we’d heard rumor of this place, but never imagined there were so many.”

“Och m’lad, it’s more than possible.” He paused. “Lights!” The room was suddenly illuminated and the three were astounded to see there were far more of their kin than they’d thought could possibly exist, let alone be in the same place.

The rugged old fox looked them over once more and flashed a toothy grin, nodding his approval of his newest recruits. “They call me Borlum” he said, “Welcome to the resistance.”