Sunday, December 20, 2009

writing to music

I was thinking about Don's "No music with lyrics" rule. I find that music helps me a great deal. Generally I have just sort of a background stream of click-hop music playing. I've always been a fan of electronica and IDM in general - click hop sets a pace for me and is usually "background" enough that it doesn't take me out of the work.
This is what I'm talking about if you're unfamiliar with click hop. It sounds like tennis shoes in a dryer to some but I like it.

"rRan" by Pronto. Video by Michael Lascarides from Pronto on Vimeo.

But sometimes you need something that sets the mood. To this end I highly recommend soundtrack albums - the more emotional the movie or similarly tonal the better. I really liked the "Me And You And Everyone We Know" soundtrack because it's the sound I like and it has emotionally charged songs on it.
Every now and then I'll break the no lyrics rule and put on a specific song because the words have relevant meaning or the mood is just right. Usually though I put that on and take it off as soon as it's over. It's too hard to write dialogue when someone's talking to you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

don roos kitchen timer

I've been meaning to post this for a while now. It's a simple methodology that Don Roos came up with that helps him write. Timed appointment writing. I'm going to use it this week and see how it works for me. Here's the methodology he was kind enough to forward after a visit to my comedy workshop this year:


The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and do-able way of being and feeling successful every day.

To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. (We leave content to our unconscious; experience will teach us to trust that.) We set up a goal for ourselves as writers which is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.

Here's how it works:

  • Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes.
  • We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day.
  • The Kitchen Timer Hour:
  • No phones. No listening to the machine to see who it is. We turn ringers off if possible. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. "I was on an hour" is something they learn to understand. But they will not respect it unless we do first.
  • No music with words, unless it's a language we don't understand.
  • No internet, absolutely.
  • No reading.
  • No "desk re-design/landscaping", no pencil-sharpening.
  • Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don't have a project we're actively working on, we just open our journal.
  • An hour consists of TIME SPENT keeping our writing appointment. We don't have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, even "I hate writing" typed four hundred times.
  • When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.
  • The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don't take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.
  • IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it will rarely occur that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it's fine, good, and right that we do when we feel like it. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.
  • It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day, than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half-hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.
  • When the hour is up, we stop, even if we're in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again -- to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours; the "I'm sorry I can't see anyone or leave my house, I'm on a deadline" method. Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.
  • If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have probably scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write three hours and didn't make it, we subtract the time we didn't write from our schedule for the next day. If we fail to make a one-hour commitment, we make a one-hour or a half-hour appointment for the next day. WE REALIZE WE CANNOT MAKE UP HOURS, and that continuing to fail to meet our commitment will result in the extinguishing of our voice.
  • When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.
  • A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, and the stilling of that hectoring voice inside of us which used to yell at us that we weren't writing enough -- all this opens us up creatively.

Good luck!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

when writers attack

I went to an event at the WGA today that far exceeded my expectations. It was a directing workshop for WGA members featuring Billy Ray, Scott Frank and Gary Ross. It was amazing. I've always been a big fan of these writers and their work as directors has been some of the most visually stunning from scribes who've made the leap into the director's chair. Anyhow, the point of today's workshop (the first of many) is to teach writers how to direct so that we can infiltrate and subvert the DGA. I'm not kidding. I sat in between Winnie Holzman and Howard Rodman - there were plenty of well knowns in attendance. So here, without further comment, my copious notes:

Working with Actors
Scott Frank moderated this section. His credits are numerous but of particular interest to this discussion is The Lookout. It's an incredible little film that is as emotional as it is intimate - Frank achieved this through his close work with the cast. It was one of the earlier films Joseph Gordon Levitt did just before becoming the big name that he is now.
  • Make your actors feel safe. Make sure that they know that you are not going to let them look bad. Each actor is different and they all have different insecurities. It's your job to figure this out and give them what they need in order to perform. Directors have been fired from movies because the MOVIE STAR is uncomfortable. Every day you have to go in and find out what they need. Spend time in their dressing room or trailer and talk. Not all will need this but some will. As a director, be prepared to be "married" to your actor.
  • You have to reassure them "you're going to look great playing this amazing character."
  • Making an actor feel safe is important because it gives you a safe space to adjust their performance without freaking them out. They may not have the perspective you have, but if they trust you they'll do what you need them to do.
  • Actors love to discuss the story. If you can talk about your story (and this is why writers turned directors have an advantage) then you are in a good place. The thing is, you've got to know your story inside out. The "why" of every moment, every tiny little thing. If you've done your job as a writer, this will be easy.
  • You are not defending your script from the actor's interpretation. This is an intense collaboration and is all about making it better. If you can't see it changed then you do not want to direct.
  • If an actor says "who am I playing" or in some way suggests they don't understand who this character is you are in big trouble. It means it's not clear in the script (or not clear to them) get clear on this before you move on.
  • You can't fix it in post. Twenty years in the business, it's never worked. He has a house that he built off fees for writing voice over. "The Problem" must be fixed in the script.
  • Casting is a great way to practice working with actors. It has the side benefit of showing you the weaknesses in your dialogue. When you're in casting (or working with an actor in general) you are always a great audience. You have to find what was good and give praise for that. I liked how you did...XYZ.
  • Steven Soderbergh holds very casual rehearsals. His actors eat, they hang out, watch movies and talk about the script. It's not a hard working rehearsal schedule. He just wants to create esprit de corps.
  • Here's how you can spot a great performance: it makes you stop what you're doing and listen. You are mesmerized. If this happens in casting, cast this person. If it happens during a shoot, great! That's the take. If it's not happening... make it happen. The words need life.
  • Directors will take your call if you want to find out about their experience working with a certain actor.
  • The more concise or specific you can be giving direction, the better. You don't need a whole conversation about it, just remind them of where they are in the story.
  • Casting directors and the Studio Executives can help you get the right people for your story, but they can also have an agenda. We need THIS STAR to get financing or to "mean something overseas." This is about money. You have to speak their language and explain to them why the wrong choice will cost them money. Be prepared to walk away from a green light if you are going to have to make the movie with the wrong person.
  • Cast your actors and crew perfectly. Everyone there should understand the story and bring something to it that makes it even better. Find actors and crew who can educate you without being a jerk about it.
Directing the Script
Gary Ross was supposed to be talking about "developing" the script but since we were all WGA members he figured we'd all had enough development for a lifetime. True. I wish there were some simple answer to the question "when is a script ready?" The fact is, it's never ready. A script can be great but the reality is, movies happen through sheer force of will. Of course a great script doesn't hurt.
  • Be open to input that will solidify your vision. What you want is the better, fresher version of what you were trying to do.
  • You have to be flexible and collaborative and yet firm in your vision of the movie. It sounds contradictory, and it is. Think of it as harmonizing.
  • DO A TABLE READ of your screenplay. Get some actors, some pizza and make it happen. You'll learn a ton.
  • Moving from writer to director you have to detach yourself from the script. Directing is not about protecting the script, it's about protecting the baby. Doing what's best for the movie (not the script). Directing is not a defensive game, it is an offensive one.
  • The way you decide to shoot the movie affects the story. Instead of preparing a dry shot list, Ross writes an emotional roadmap that contains his shots but in descriptive languate the intention behind those shots. For example, from Seabiscuit, he describes a wide shot of a funeral with a tree anchoring one side of the frame. He wants it wide to give them their privacy and so that the distance lets us fill in with our imagination the devastation of the characters. For more on this DVD special features shows Ross going over his unique "shot list roadmap."
  • There's time in development to get your point of view down firm. Direct the movie in private (the roadmap) before you have to direct it in public.
  • If when shooting you're running out of time and something's gotta give, let it be lighting. Lighting is overrated. Don't be done in by what isn't important.
  • Only 10% of a director's job happens between Action and Cut. It's about the other things, casting, editing, prep. Don't overlook these areas. They're hugely important.
  • When you direct you're the host of the party, not the guest. You're trying to get your cast and crew to do that extra bit for you that they reserve for good hosts.
  • You don't have to know everything. You just have to be able to defend your script. So it better be fully cooked.
Managing your Film
Billy Ray wrote and directed Shattered Glass and Breach. He has a winning attitude that is frankly refreshing in what is often a cynical business. He described the harrowing events around shooting scene 202 of Shattered Glass - a 16 hour day that comprised a pivotal action sequence. At the end of the day they discovered all three cameras were underexposed. The footage was unusable. He took his cast and crew aside, explained the situation and said this was their opportunity to do it better. They rallied and pulled it off. The scene was better than what had been lost on the underexposed footage.

  • You can't whine or complain, you have to lead.
  • Take the blame for everything that goes wrong (I didn't supervise the cameras close enough - that's why the footage was underexposed) and deflect all the credit for everything that goes right (I have an amazing cast - production designer - etc.) You're going to get credit anyway.
  • You do not need to be the big dog.
  • That said, do not be self deprecating. You are the leader, you do not have to apologize for having the job. Listen to how the crew talks about other directors. Shake everyone's hand at the end of the day. Pay for coffee. This is simple stuff - all a way of saying "don't be an asshole." It's amazing how many directors don't get this - they think you have to be a screaming maniac - it's bullshit. People value good leadership and work harder for good leaders than they do tyrants.
  • Seek advice from other directors. It's understood that directors help out other directors. Mentorship is easy to make happen.
  • You need to be in the best physical shape of your life. You have to be prepared for something to hit you when you're at your weakest moment. If you're a runner, for example, finish with a sprint so you're in the habit of finishing strong. It's at the end of a shoot that something crazy happens - you have to be physically capable of overcoming it.
  • Hire people who do not create drama. There's no metal detector for crazy but if you can at all help it, avoid whiners and complainers. They're always a drag.
  • Anticipate that you will get calls from the studio. You know what they're about - they're about the problem. Have answers for them.
  • Manage the shooting schedule - be on the lookout for potential problems like big shots (moments) back to back or an actor having their big scene on the first day they arrive. Ask the crew questions about the schedule so that all departments can be informed of each other's needs.
  • Every night, after shooting, prep for the next day. Don't goof off, prep. Go over everything that night.
  • This sounds crazy but on a long day, change your socks at lunch. You'll get it.
  • You do not have to go to dailies.
  • Always ask yourself "How can I make it better?" You've got the script, lighting, camera, sound, music and performance in your toolbox. How can you make it better?
  • You know that the editing is going well when you're cutting good moments OUT of the film. This sounds counter-intuitive but what it means is that there's nothing bad left to cut, you're down to cutting good stuff.
  • Don't take the Film By credit. If you do Billy Ray will haunt you.