Don’t Be A Boring Shirt

I was at the laundromat and noticed something that I thought was an interesting parallel to screenplays these days.

The preponderance of boring shirts.

Oh there were blue striped ones, blue plaid ones, and of course various shades of good old blue, but as I scanned the racks it really struck me just how many variations of the same plain shirt people were having cleaned. Of course there were also beige and white shirts, gray and black coats, but near everyone, it seems, has “safe” blue shirts. What also stood out was that as the electric conveyer rack spun by, once in a while a shirt with color would pass, catching the eye and standing out. With so many trying to play safe & by the rules, the different one was easy to pick out. With thousands of screenplays written every year, the parallel is clear. Make yours the one that catches the eye.

Screenwriters often follow templates and guidelines when crafting their works, which is fine, but in a world where seemingly 99% are following the Save the Cat or similar formula (a bit too strictly for many), those who can work with structure yet offer something different, something that makes a reader pause and say, “wait, that’s unique” are the ones who stand out from the pack. Sometimes it’s a bright red shirt, but sometimes it’s just a thread of color that turns an otherwise plain piece of cloth into a fascinating design. Strive for fascinating, keep readers entertained.

Now obviously this doesn’t mean go write a script with charcoal and crayon on the hides of animals you killed with nothing but a fountain pen. That’s different alright (and pretty awesome if you actually used only a pen), but not what we’re talking about. The thing is to create a story that fits in the basic rules yet doesn’t plod along predictably from a-z. Everyone will have a different way to do this, but when reviewing your draft, look at it as though you were a reader tasked with slogging through 200 scripts a year. Are you more or less writing what everyone else is (within your own story naturally) or are you writing outside the box? What makes yours stand out? Ask yourself that question on a regular basis and you may just find yourself rising above the cookie-cutter mire of uninspiring scripts.

7 Simple Ways to Cut Film Production Costs

Lasso horse money

If you’ve worked on a show, you’ve likely seen financial waste of varying degrees, from minor wobbles to downright trainwrecks. While sometimes sh*t happens and production just has to deal with it and carry on, more often than not a lot of terrible budget-suck can be avoided. Here are a few tips that apply to many situations (keeping in mind there is no one-size-fits-all method). Paying attention to a few key details can help on your quest to make a good product while staying within budget.

  1. Rein in your director.

Framed

Now the director makes the piece what it is, be it a feature film or a 30 second TV spot. Without them you don’t get your project completed, but that doesn’t mean giving them free reign. Everyone who’s worked more than a day in the industry has likely heard the term “Adult Supervision” muttered around an uncontrolled set, and let me tell you, it’s incredibly important if you want to keep runaway production costs from spiraling out of control.

Producers are there to say no. Someone must wear the black hat. Not always mind you, but their job is to look out for the good of the project and play bad cop when need be. At hour 17 when a director is on his 35th take of an insert shot that could be picked up by 2nd unit, that’s an easy example of when a producer must pull the plug. Unfortunately people want to be liked and often are reluctant to be that guy, but if you put on the producer hat, you have to accept that some days you won’t be terribly liked. Suck it up and keep your project (and budget) on track.

  1. Rein in rampaging actors (when possible).

Kirk Lazarus2

Ok, actors are a unique bunch. Folks make fun of them, but when you really consider what they must do to put on a good performance, a bit of flexibility is warranted. I mean let’s not forget Lawrence Fishburn and Hugo Weaving’s epic fight in The Matrix. Even after 16+ hours, bangs & bruises, and horrible allergies from all the dust, they acted like pros and made the fight look amazing.

Here’s the but. BUT, everything is on a schedule and every extra minute spent on something that should be otherwise completed is costing the production money. Be it demanding frivolous alternate takes, or refusing to come out of the trailer while the whole crew is standing around waiting, once again it is the producer’s job to play bad cop, albeit with kid gloves more often than not. I should also mention that I wholeheartedly support shooting extra takes when an actor has interpretations of scenes they want to try, so long as it really may add to the scene and won’t cost the production tens of thousands in overages in the process..

One notable exception to this is when the actor is also the financier. I once worked on a ridiculous film where come shooting call we were looking for the lead. “Ready to shoot” the AD said. “Oh, he went to Texas to do a concert.” Yep, the talent/financier left and didn’t tell anyone. “Ok, we’ll shoot the other parts of the scenes.” “Um, those were all his posse… they went with him.” A quandry, but not insurmountable. “Ok, we’ll shoot the actor who isn’t in his crew.” “Yeah, about that, he heard they were going to Texas, so he flew to Ohio.”

It was the only time I got paid to sit and play Scrabble on set for 8 hours as production tried to figure out literally anything they could shoot. In the end it was one POV shot of someone’s boots… worn by the producer.

  1. Plan ahead. For real, DO THIS.

Stripboard

Showing up and winging it may work on a student film, but if every minute costs hundreds or thousands of dollars, you’d better damn well know what you’re doing next. This is where pre-production is vital, as is location scouting with the director and their keys. A little forethought can save you literally hours of paying a crew to stand twiddling their thumbs on the clock while ideas are bounced around.

The time for brainstorming is before you have the crew on the clock. I’ve worked with directors who will change their shots for that day’s work, but there are two types. There’s the type who torpedoes the schedule and budget in doing so, and there’s the type who knows that they want to make changes and shows up early, walking the sets and planning their changes before the crew is even ready. The latter is a sign of professionalism, and trust me the crew notices these things.

Remember the 6 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

  1. Find ways to reduce needless complexity.

many to few

A lengthy scene with 6 people can eat up your whole day, but can some of those characters not be in the scene? Can their dialogue be spoken by another character, thus reducing the number of shots and coverage needed? Can they be out of the room, perhaps even answering from off screen? What can you do to keep the integrity of the scene while reducing its complexity and schedule demands?

Coverage can be death in crowded scenes. If you start doing multiple coverage angles at multiple sizes for multiple characters, pretty soon you’ll not only burn through most of the day shooting the same scene over and over, but you’ll also eventually start to burn your actors out as well. Now sometimes it must be done, and everyone appreciates and understands that, but when it is frivolous, all it does is burn time, money, and patience.

  1. Do not shoot multiple masters.

Arrows director

Want to piss off your actors and crew, waste time, and look like an amateur? Shoot hours of multiple masters from multiple angles before moving in to coverage. The master should be just that, a master, from which you then get into the meat of the scene with coverage. Shooting multiple masters screams out “I didn’t plan this and am winging it!” Don’t be that person. If you’re truly making it up as you go, the crew and actors will know, and they will lose respect for you eventually. Even if the end result is amazing, you can’t do it often. It is morale killing to spend a 15 hour day on set that could have been 10 just because someone was indecisive and unprepared.

  1. Keep dolly and crane shots within reason.

Dolly and crane

Giving a director toys to play with can produce some amazing shots, but it can also cost the production tens of thousands in overages. This comes back to the idea of planning out your day. If you have a dolly shot planned for the morning and a crane shot for the afternoon, great, but if you have those tools and just start making things up it is going to derail your schedule faster than an Amtrak (sorry Amtrak).

This is where dialogue between the “Adults” (remember the term “Adult Supervision”?) and the director. Sometimes for a great bit of inspiration you have to suck it up and get the shot if it is truly worth it. A lot of amazing material has been filmed because of inspiration on the day. The key is knowing when to let them run with it and when to reign it in. Toys are fun to play with, but every dolly, crane, or drone shot requires a lot of time to set up. It’s tough, but this is where the producer must make judgment calls and hope their decision was the right one.

  1. Storyboard if you can afford it.

storyboard

Ok, I may be a bit biased, my cousin, Tony Liberatore, (not his board shown above) is an amazing storyboard artist who comes up with brilliant shots and transitions on the fly for some of the biggest films out there (Fast and Furious, Captain America, and many more). The thing is, a good storyboard artist will help a director approach the day with a concrete plan. A course of action. A visual map of what they MUST get that day. If they can get more, fantastic, but the storyboard really helps keep the production on track.

Paul Hunter is a music video director whose shoots I’ve worked on in the past, and let me tell you that man is meticulous in his storyboarding. Now we all know music video shoots are almost always ridiculously long days, but Paul is a rarity in that he not only gets every single shot on his boards, but once he has them he then gets additional shots he’s come up with if reasonable given the schedule. His work ethic is impressive, and it shows in the smoothness of his shoots. It’s also a big reason so many of us loved working with him, it’s always a pleasure working with a pro.

Stopwatch-money

Even if you forget everything you’ve just read, try to keep this one thought in your head: Whether you work on tiny productions or massive projects, every minute wasted is money wasted, and boy does it add up. Strive to make every minute count and you’ll not only save money, but will also most likely find your project will go smoother in nearly all respects.

Be sure to check out my Pulse articles on LinkedIn

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Indie Psychological Thriller “Old Bill” to Film in London

What if that kindly old man down the road was really a barely reformed sociopath on the verge of relapsing from his decades long “thou shalt not kill” pledge? Falling off that wagon is tough, especially when there’s no 12-step program for serial killers.

oldbill

I recently joined the team of writer/director Peter Stylianou, producer Tony Currier, and executive producer Nik stylianou (a team whose previous film “Who Needs Enemies” was theatrically released in the UK and is available on DVD worldwide) to produce their newest project, “Old Bill.”

Old Bill is a bloody psychological thriller with a fascinating and troubled senior citizen protagonist with a brutal past, paired with an unlikely counterpart, a young French woman with a penchant for shoplifting and a wild streak a mile wide.

Old Bill will be shot in London later this year and promises to be a wild ride, one I’m thrilled to be a part of.

        Old Bill’s Slated.Com Page       

Follow the Old Bill Twitter feed for updates.

Screenwriting: When Less is More

Brevity.  Clarity.  Subtext.

In reading the work of some of the more influential screenwriters of the last few decades, one thing (with a few exceptions) holds true across the board. These top-tier writers are both thrifty with their use of words, yet also able to convey so much more than most with the words they commit to the page. Sure, every writer knows about subtext, yet some are true experts at crafting dialogue and descriptives that can fill a reader’s mind with a full-frame of information from just a few brief lines.

The Script Lab

Be Clear. Be Concise. Be Creative.

The Script Lab recommends “The Three C’s” as a simple guideline to keep in mind. Now if you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m not a believer in following cut & dry methods (and don’t get me started on Save the Cat), but I do believe “The Three C’s” is actually a useful and easy to remember tool when you find yourself questioning if something is perhaps too wordy, too vague, or too bland.

For an example, let’s turn to arguably the most well known script from the legendary William Goldman. I’ll link the shooting script (there’s a bit more included in shooting scripts, such as direction for camera and whatnot, but you’ll get the idea). Look at the economy of words, the quality of words chosen, and the mental picture painted with them.

Goldman’s writing is a classic example of The Three C’s well before that was even a thing. His writing is Clear and Concise with not a wasted sentence as he crafts the world, the scene, and the dialogue, yet even his shortest of lines has that Goldman Creativity. The man had a way with words, on that we can all agree. If anyone says otherwise, I have but one word for them…

Inconceivable!

For further insight into screenwriting, as well as occasional amusing nuggets, The Bitter Script Reader Twitter feed can provide an enjoyable barrage of quips and commentary that are often surprisingly on-point.

He’s been an industry script reader for a decade and his exchanges with fellow readers can be downright hilarious. You’ll likely notice that followers of the “more is more” and “fill the page, let the reader figure it out” school of writing tend to be pet peeves of the pro-reader crowd. In other words, the pros tend to agree, Less is More more often than not.

Tax Benefits Shooting Film in the UK

Everyone is looking for a deal, an incentive, a tax credit, something to help them get their project made, be it in the swamps of Louisiana or the wilderness of New Zealand. For those filming in the UK, the incentives currently available there seem quite attractive.

Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, aka SEIS

The SEIS is designed to help small production investors realize tax savings. £100k or less in shares can have 50% deducted. Additionally if you hold the shares for 3 or more years and have made a profit, that profit will be free from Capital Gains tax. It’s a fantastic way to fund a project and immediately cut your risk in half.

Enterprise Investment Scheme, aka EIS

The EIS is the big brother of the SEIS, and investors can realize tax savings of 30% on amounts up to £1,000,000 in shares. As with the SEIS, if Capital Gains are realized after a minimum of 3 years, they will be tax free. While tax savings are 30% rather than 50%, you can invest up to 10x the amount as SEIS and still receive a tax write-off.

UK Cultural Tax Rebates

For culturally UK films a tax rebate is available for up to 25% of the production budget, up to £20 million, to qualifying production companies. What this means is when the production company files its tax return, it can claim a cash refund of up to 25% of qualifying expenditures (such as pre-production, principal photography, and post-production). Development and marketing are not included as qualifying expenses.

With incentives like these, the UK saw a 35% increase in overall film/tv spending in 2014.

Obviously there is a tremendous amount of information not covered here, and this is not intended as legal or tax advice. Seek out investment counsel or tax professionals before making any financial decisions.

Really Good Writers Sometimes Write Not-So-Good Material

Working on some fairly big features and television shows over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting but often overlooked occurrence. That of otherwise good writers putting out some truly wretched material.

Sometimes it’s too many chefs in the kitchen. We’ve all seen laundry list credits with scores of writers and story editors, all chipping in their two cents worth, but once in a while there’s the opportunity to observe a single writer’s “shooting script” of remarkable crappiness evolve into a dozen or so revision scripts, also of remarkable crappiness. Let me tell you, it can be pretty impressive, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Recently I had the opportunity to take a gander at some of the clunkiest dialogue I’ve read in years. I’m talking burn the script after 10 pages bad. Instant PASS bad. How does this person have a job writing bad. The twist is, this writer has previously penned a bunch of things I really enjoyed in the past. Apparently this particular assignment just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. I was torn, I wanted to like their work, but holy crap I just couldn’t.

And that’s the thing I began thinking about. Even seasoned pros sometimes blow it big time but keep getting a free pass. This fact really doesn’t do much for us aspiring screenwriters, once you’re established you can fail pretty spectacularly and still get work, but the takeaway for me at least is that a good many of us have quite likely written things objectively better than some seasoned pros. Will that knowledge get any of us work? Of course not. Can we keep that tidbit tucked away for those rainy days when we feel like our work just isn’t up to snuff and want to give up in a fit of frustration and foot stomping while howling at the moon in an angry tirade like a frustrated child with a bad case of colic? You bet your run-on sentences we can. (and that was a painful one to write).

I’m really just posting this as a little pep talk, an incentive to fellow writers, an objective bit of info that sometimes it’s not about the material as much as the connections and name you’ve built up.

Frustration happens and we all have self-doubt sometimes, just don’t let it stop you from writing.