Writers’ Groups and Community

Between 1998 and 2006, I joined and left or got dis-invited from five writer’s groups. This is not counting participation and reviewing scripts on zoetrope.com and triggerstreet.com.  Typically these groups are started by people who want feedback for their own output and in some cases there is a bit of a control issue.  The last group I was involved in during those years had evolved through LIFT the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto.  Here is a group that rents equipment and facilities to non-commercial, personal films. But the screenwriting circle was run by a guy who wanted only writers trying to write for sale to the industry.  This meant a lot of reiteration of the Robert McKee and Syd Field kind of plot paradigm and nothing from the inside out or with insight into the writers.  There is the tired old chestnut distinguishing between a rule and a principle.  Today, there is increased talk about how the classic commercial paradigm is too confining.  I once used the word “dogmatic” and he asked me to define it.  I did, but couldn’t get over the air that he believed he was setting me up for embarrassment in case I failed to define it.

I happened to leave that group after my father passed away, when I wasn’t focusing on writing and had some personal issues to work through.  I had no real deadline and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing for the sake of writing.  I was then told it was supposed to be my turn to submit, so I did send the current draft of a feature script without combing through it for a final proof read.  This became an issue.  Again, this might have been another set up, this time seeing if I was truly leaving the group over grief.  Suffice to say, the tone of a meeting was set by this insufferable jackass. I had a run of dialogue between deliberately named characters Mack and Beth, and one might reasonably assume people would understand this is not an oversight, but the quality of laughter when it was brought up suggested the handiwork of the moderator.  His friend and second-in-charge of the group has gone on to make a handful of features.  But the head moderator of the group seems to have gone on to post some seemingly fake credits on imdb.  Ultimately, after each meeting the group would go for a beer nearby and I attended a couple of times but I had a night shift to attend in those days and so I couldn’t fully make the commitment to join and socialize, so that made me a bit of the odd man out and opened the possibility of letting my image be created for me.  I do remember a short being presented for discussion and I praised it for being satirical.  The woman who had written it flatly told me, “I didn’t intend it as hilarious”  so a few years later when she won the Toronto Urban Film Festival with it pretty much as written and Atom Egoyan was quoted as calling it great satire I was happy without being able to say I told you so.

Many of these little groups – some of which involved cold live readings, but mostly discussion of drafts or sections of drafts – seemed ineffective.  If I am given half an hour of a feature (25-30 pages) for comment I am unable to thoughtfully factor in the context. If we are asking each other to read a full draft, and the discussion is less about the specific dialogue and more about the broad strokes, then it may be more practical to show each other four page outlines that clearly show how the real estate of story and plot are to be spent over the first act, the two halves of the second act, and then the third act, what the turning points are and how key problems are solved.  The trouble is that most studios or filmmakers would love to get their hands on a true story outline that solves the broad strokes, just so they can have someone expand on it and steamroll the original writer into oblivion.  Most movies are professionally produced and often directed with style and the screenplay or plot is the weakest link.  The full drafts often submitted for the group to read and give notes on (including many of my own) are typically not ready to be seen by anyone.  They are too frequently knocked off because there is a sudden opening in the queue and something is due.

I also found that it is best to invite specific writers you respect if you build a group. Especially now, there is more division over how to approach humor and sensitive subject matter that it can detract from getting a useful tracking of how people follow a script and where interest levels peak or drop and what is muddled.  One group I had been invited to because I had filmed at one of the members’ houses and I had sat in during a reading and apparently my acting was well received.  This lasted until I had submitted something and a couple of members were concerned that I had not taken the same screenwriting course they had – one that apparently cautioned writers to banish anything “problematic” from a story or description, or anything that was not flaming progressive.  The friend who had brought me in was delicate when telling me this. Sometimes this kind of turn of events doesn’t come with a satisfying explanation.  I had to connect my own dots.  I looked back at my last draft where I was describing – for example – a cleaning lady who hated dirt.  I had drawn blank on the word “pristine” so I wrote in a place-holder “perfectly white” referring to her hands, but forgetting to put an asterisk on either side of the place-holder for later editing. Even something like that could have someone to get the wrong idea.

My take on writers in general is that many are gold rush seekers, and some just want to have the identity of writer, but most of us are interested in ourselves and the bubble around us.  They say you know someone by the company he or she keeps.  I was in that last screenwriting group for three years, and I am somewhat on speaking terms with one of the members but couldn’t confidently say many of the names even if I remember drafts of their scripts I’ve read.  I’m not even sure I like many of the writers I know.  I am certain that taking random opinions to heart has caused me to waste time exploring drafts of my work that were dead ends.  Meanwhile there are times I have written coverage on someone’s script and they appreciate that it is getting into how the themes are used and what personal issues the writer brought into it.  A story or script might be a message or clue from the unconscious, just as the initial spark of an idea and its euphoria is the tip of that iceberg hinting that the rest might be stored in the writer’s mind and that he or she is the person to develop it.

Jim Jarmush has said he will write a first draft in longhand and hand this to a typist and shoot that.  Woody Allen claims to use an old typewriter, then maybe circles a few things on it with pen for corrections and lets someone else retype it.  Meanwhile some of us are puttering away at multiple drafts instead of getting on with it.  One script I had been paid for each time I did a rewrite (for which I’m grateful) had been set aside by the producer and needed my encouragement.  It had table readings and yet no urgency of production until world events made the core premise dated.     I think initially a previous writer would not provide an electronic version because he wanted control.  So I retyped that draft and made some adjustments along the way and gave both a pdf and editable office document to the producer.  I had recommended printing it out and writing in concerns or edit notes onto that so that I could see the changes at a glance and go through it in the file to apply changes without unnecessary time-consuming re-reading.  But a poor typist was brought in to use different software and generate a new draft I had trouble wading through and could not embrace as a potential director.  I really needed to be able to track at a glance what had been dropped or changed and I was angry with the unseen typist who had made so many mistakes that this draft could not be presented to anyone.  To this day, I offer ideas on fixes but I know if I do it there is a psychological commitment. Not having the last word is one thing, and wanting to make a different movie is another. Even though I certainly want to see my friend have something to show for all the time and money that has already gone into generating the material.

During all that same time, over ten years, my clown epic had been refined to a point where I was livid when I discovered some key people wanted to do improvisation instead of the dialogue I had crafted.  That would have been too unwieldy and rob me of true closure that vindicated my writing.  But other filmmakers have their premise and draw in their collaborators and jump into pre-production without a finished script and have a leap of faith about improvisation.  I know myself enough to know that would not be my cup of tea. I like to have a common point of reference, a final script. I wonder if skipping those screenwriting support circles might have allowed me to just blunder ahead with whatever crazy drafts I had and make features fifteen years earlier.  I do know that if you are in a group just because you answered an open call or you belong to a co-up that entitles you to participate it won’t be as useful as notes from someone whose work you respect and who cares enough about the craft to ask what you mean if something is unclear and who may even care if you exist.  If you love the craft of screenwriting and some of its architectural demands then it won’t be so personal that it is uncomfortable – it is just about how information is set up and how prepared the reader/audience will be for what happens next.

In your twenties and thirties, a screenwriting group might be a way to network. It might also be a way to push people away with failing to be progressive enough or passionate enough with political opinions.  It is a double-edged sword.  Identity politics can wear you out.  And if you have notes on a script and by the time a circle comes around to you others have already said what you had prepared it will seem like a waste of time.  The funny thing is that a playwright I respect had once stated in a blog that, “You should not respond to feedback on a script right away.  Just take the notes and think on them and decide what is useful and what is not.” Something like that.  And yet how many times after a table read or screenwriting discussion do we expect writers to answer questions or justify something in the script? Maybe at the outset, the writer should ask what kind of feedback is helpful (tracking one’s interest in the scenes, characters, content) and that you have no intention of asking questions, only noting them to look over later.

Sometimes doing several stabs at a outline is more useful than any feedback.  Really kicking the tires of the story without generating a huge word count and getting lost in the weeds.  I encourage people to write but the concept of peers and peer review isn’t something to take as having blanket value.  Some say even random feedback is akin to what you get from the general audience anyway, but there is a skill to reading and evaluating just as there is a talent and craft needed for the writing itself.  Some people are armchair studio executives and others will putter with writing, off and on, like playing the lottery.

For years I could spend time reading scripts and noting my observations and generating substantial reviews on-line and in return getting reviews for my own scripts that were minimum word count b.s. proof that the person just skimmed the script. I know if I have spent a couple of hours reading a script or anything else (especially with an open word file for my notes and first impressions as I go) I will have something to say.  Making room for a lot of writers in a group to present their work for feedback requires commitment.  I might prefer to e-mail my notes if I can’t attend a meeting and be denied the e-mail address of the writer of the month because the moderator wants all discussion verbal and oral face to face.  (Really to make sure his/her role and authority as moderator is not rendered irrelevant.)  Even though that is not practical. Ultimately, some people might feel they need a sense of community and people to have a beer with or vent with but in practical terms a screenwriter circle is not practical.  Maybe one great script with a circle of producers and financers would be ideal.



Though I had a short partially funded by Bravo!Fact in 2001 and a longer one under the Emerging Artists grant of the Ontario Arts Council, I haven’t applied for much but screenplay contests since.  If I cultivated more of a head for business, I might have a more legitimate foothold.  Here is a good article with contacts for funding in Canada, posted by the National Film Board.




Writing for Free

While in college, I contacted a filmmaker from my hometown and showed him some writing samples for the hell of it.  I had only met him as an extra on a feature he did, and that scene didn’t make the final cut.  I had written a couple of Star Trek: The Next Generation spec episodes because that show accepted submissions from fans, and I had written an original feature called Crotch, about a pornographer who has to retire as a condition of his pending marriage. They were, for good or ill, writing samples.  He invited me over to see an idea he might want me to work on.  When I got there and he pointed to the title and couple of paragraphs, I had a sinking feeling and had to say no because it seemed too exploitative.  I didn’t like the title and the two paragraphs seemed to represent two different stories.

A short time later, he called saying that he had to show an investor a four page outline and could I help by knocking one off in the next couple of days.  Back then I had a naive can-do attitude and felt I should try to meet the challenge, even while I was a full time student.  I went to the school’s Mac lab and knocked off four pages from handwritten notes I had made in my travels.  I sent this off, either as an e-mail or maybe he picked it up where I was living in second year. He made his deadline and next began to write a partial draft which was mostly a first act and a few other scenes.  He wanted to know if in a couple of weeks I could build that into a full draft.  I actually recognized at least one line from my Crotch script.  But I again took the challenge to name that tune in a short space of time.  He was acting in one of my short films, so at a rehearsal I handed him a 123 page draft. I could get into detail with character names and which elements I introduced, but I don’t want to open old wounds by naming the project.  One of the paradoxes of movie-making is that you may have a bad experience with people you otherwise like.

He showed the long draft to various unnamed people and then gave me their notes, a few of which were contradictory and many of which were against the use of overt “jokes.”  Ultimately, the next few drafts were about 100 pages.

Then between semesters he had me bus down to Toronto for a couple of weeks to stay with him and his family in a guest room and generate a final draft.  He presented me with something to sign and which he also signed a copy of, with his wife as witness that stated story by him and screenplay by himself and me as an agreement that this was how the credit would read.  At that point in the process, I had already contributed enough to justify this. There was a table reading, and then several days of pulling the script apart and putting the pages on a wall of the office and scrutinizing the flow of it.  Another writer strolled in one day to look at what we had done and he ostensibly had been hired to do a “step outline” which seemed like a step backward.  It turned out that what he had brought was a sample of his own start on an actual draft.  His approach for the opening had an entirely different gimmick. I don’t believe any of his work ended up in the draft but it gave me a strong gut sense of how when someone is being paid for work their output is given more consideration than the grind of ideas that come from the underpaid or free writer.

When I returned home, after a week or so he also visited our mutual home town and presented me with the latest draft.  It threw me because it had material from the earliest version and it seemed like a huge regression. I likely said some things in anger.  Then he said that our work on his home computer had gotten deleted and apparently even the floppy back-up we had used over those two weeks had a problem and he had to revert back to the older incomplete version.  It seemed implausible and I was depressed about it.  I mean how could both the computer and the back up floppy have been corrupted?

Today I might e-mail a back-up, which has its own drawbacks.  You might have a collaborator or friend with a huge archive of drafts you don’t want anyone to see.

Then two big movies came out with a similar premise or setting to the one we had been writing.  This director/producer decided to shelve his project and focus on something else.  None of his investors were interested now.

Eighteen years later, give or take, I happen to be chatting with this person while I am working at a security guard post and he mentions that he has only a few more days left shooting this film and names the title.  And this is the first I have heard that he got someone to finance the movie all those years later.  I might have wanted to set foot in the home of the protagonists and meet them.  But then the question might come up about why I might be so interested. When there was a screening, I was invited. I brought a friend who had been familiar with the background and recognized my sense of humor that had survived in certain scenes. I left a comment alluding to my only credit being in the special thanks list and wondering what the answer would be if someone asked what I was thanked for.  Shortly after that screening there were things going on in his personal life that made it impossible to broach the subject.  I also had an aneurysm by then.  But another screening eventually happened and this time three people asked about the writing in the Q & A and each time there was a version of the story that did not mention my involvement.  I was tempted to stand up and field those questions.

Eventually, I sent him a Facebook message with my concerns and reminding him of some contributions right down to spelling the word Valentine backward to create a character name which he then shortened a bit.  He agreed to meet, gave me a copy of the movie and a very small check for $200 which was what had been due for the two weeks I had written at his place nearly two decades before. I agreed to a small credit on imdb which I won’t disclose here but it was not co-writer which was indeed the truth.

My only conclusion from this is that it is generally unwise to start with someone else’s idea, which causes you as writer to have to get “right” the vision the person claims to have.  Your own unconscious will be working on that person’s story for months or years and it can take a toll. If you are getting paid up front and going through an agent so these agreements can’t be swept under the carpet, great.  There may have been positive aspects to this kind of collaboration, because someone else cares about it being done.  But it should be done with eyes open and also not over the internet.  I remember also jumping at the chance to write some radio dramas for someone only to discover it was a project that fell apart and the call had gone out to many writers anyway so it was all the more speculative.  Better to put your passion into something you control, and then direct it yourself.  If that is an option.

Working with Murphy 5: Ten Years in Clown Town

I made a short for Daryl Gold’s hard Liquor and Porn Comedy Film Festival.  I won’t leave a link to it because to be honest this is one that – even though it played well and kicked off a character Jay Ould played in several shorts and monologue videos – didn’t project a production value that ages very well.  For the most part I’m referring to framing and the fact that it was done with a 3 chip camera we borrowed but had it been done two years later it would have been HD.  I had been wanting to make something about sexual repression and had made several attempts at screenplays that I have submitted to contests over the years in those iterations but now that Porno the Clown was established as a character I thought of building it around him.

Producer 1 was a neighbor of Jay who was working with him on an unrelated film.  My first draft of a Porno the Clown feature was a clunky hodgepodge where I wove my old material in with the new character and tried to make him fit into an old premise and serve as a mentor.  Producer 1 didn’t think it was the right “format” meaning three act and simple Syd Field, which I thought I had been adhering to.  He suggested the three of us, myself, actor Jay and he fill out paperwork for a corporation that would then make the movie.  When I showed up to sign the documents, Producer 1 was not listed and he said he had decided he doesn’t have to be part of the corporation.  I absolutely should have firmly put on the breaks then. There was for a few years a corporation Jay and I had signed on to that was ostensibly to make the movie but I don’t really know why it was necessary.  As far as I am concerned, we let it elapse. As the sole writer, I was the only person that really had to be tied to the project.  I had been led to believe that since Producer 1 was from America it might help guard a Telefilm tax credit from the current scar by the Harper government that if a movie’s content did not meet a “community standard” that was family friendly it could be denied its tax credit after the fact.  That spooked a lot of home grown producers.  Having this person tied to production was wise, I thought, and even necessary.  But I was wrong.  I’d like to think it was not just a ruse to get my actor tied to the project in case it blew up and I was tempted to get Danny DeVito to star instead.

There were several months in which I would write a four page outline and then sit with jay and producer 1 to read at the kitchen table and discuss, and sometimes more than one prospective outline.  There was a variation Producer 1 suggested which did not resonate for me and which did not originate with me so it would have been toiling in someone else’s factory and trying to get his “vision” right.  Another iteration I came up with was too scandalous, and so there was a stalemate for a while.  Then we met at Hooters for a beer (only time I had been in there but it seemed apt) and I had an approach that seemed to be accepted.  It still felt organic to what had come before.  Meanwhile Jay said he had met a financier who might fund or buy a series of Porno the Clown shorts.  I still had the energy and can-do attitude that I outlined and drafted about ten shorts, give or take.  Eventually a few would be shot but the deal never materialized. The producer moved and eventually disengaged likely in part because as time went on he had hypothesized about how the project could grow as celebrity cameos were brought in (something Jay wanted and I did not, since it was a distraction and my first feature) and that as the budget might get to a certain size investors might insist on someone else directing.  That, I had to say, would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise. Whether or not I am the most experienced director and whether or not I am part of the Director’s Guild of Canada (I am sadly not), I still have to jump the hurdle of first feature.  I also will have had the whole thing storyboarded, which is the outward measure of direction as an art form.  I don’t factor in how a given director behaves on set, or his/her influence over a script.  How the director directs the audience, positioning them shot for shot or displacing them cut for cut, is how I evaluate a director’s work.  If I learn later that it was all delegated to the cinematographer or the editor, then I am less impressed.  I know the process I need to go through to feel good about my directing credit.

Time passed.  Porno the Clown Goes to Town was submitted to the Canadian Film Center Feature Film project a couple of times and finally to CineCoup as The Adventures of Porno the Clown.  In hindsight, the premise was already an uphill battle.  So if anyone said they got it and they were in and wanted to be involved I would just be relieved.

On April Fools day of 2014, there was a table reading of the draft at Jay’s place. Others might have been still en route and trying to find the place so Jay still had his cell phone on and might have gotten into texting during the read and missing a few cues.   The rhythm of the piece is almost as important as the dialogue.  The story itself is just a container for the stuff I really care about – specific lines and specific shots.  That contravenes what most people say about screenwriting, but I don’t care.  The skeleton just holds people together; it is the flesh and something ethereal that you actually like about them.   There was useful discussion afterward.  My friend Morgonn was reading and very helpful, though I’m not sure she would especially like the movie.  Two major local clown actors, Dave and Adam, participated.  Dave brought beer.    Adam took over much of the reading because I had not brought my glasses and he had the most energy. He gave the most dramaturgical input, suggesting that I place the backstory into the story proper and delay the introduction of the character Porno the Clown.  That was applied in the next draft.  Unfortunately a storyboard illustrator I had paid to re-draw my thumbnail storyboards had only done the beginning of the movie and most of that work was now unusable because I had changed the beginning and truncated other things to accommodate the change.  But the script had been improved in any case and I was still able to solve those problems myself.  What is noteworthy for the future is that there was not one peep of protest of concern about a character called Homo the Clown or jokes at his expense.  He was conceived as a self-styled snob who makes fun of the clothes or weight of others and kind of deserves a couple of zingers.  In the original short there was a character called Lesbo the Clown who was popular with the audience and ended up humiliating Porno the Clown so it was reasonable that yet another stereotype be represented as a clown persona.  There were any number of things that a given cast member or crew member might if they had their druthers pluck like a quill from a porcupine if I placated them enough to allow it.  Then I would end up with a sickly looking porcupine.  Better to say here is the script and use that as a litmus test for whether actors are appropriate for it, rather than amend the script to appease the politics and sensitivities of each person involved.

By October of 2016, there was a trend of scary clown videos distracting from the US election-driven discourse.  I suggested to Dave making a PSA about clowns not being so scary.  We ended up shooting it by the skin of our teeth as simple as it was.  We were doing it guerrilla style in the building of a local clown friend of Dave. We did get busted for shooting in one particular room I spotted, and then moved on with footage intact. I had the wrong data card for my camera, and thought it was just the battery.  But photographer Paul was there and let me use his camera.  At one point Dave referred to me as “the videographer” and I stifled the impulse to let out an Elephant Man declarative statement like, “I am not a videographer, I am a director!”

Before that short, we had a meeting.  One of the people with Dave and I was Tony who had been sent drafts of the script for some time since he was to play the Police Officer. But that idea was nixed.  I decided to press for an answer as to what he thought of the script for the Porno the Clown feature.  He said, “I did start reading a draft but I ran into a couple of jokes I considered punching down so I stopped reading.” I summoned the most polite reply I could think of, “Well, you have to follow your own gut.  No hard feelings if you don’t want to be in that one.”  With that he walked off and it wasn’t mentioned during the PSA shoot.     I thought now I have to put a police uniform onto someone else.  Maybe four months later in early 2017 I had a meeting at Jay’s and I know everyone of the small group (me and four people) had a copy of the latest draft of the script but I was doubtful it had been read.  Dave brought up having heard from someone unnamed that there is a scene where Homo the Clown is “beaten up on.”  We wasted some time with my interpretation that it meant physical assault.  Which did not occur in the script and would be out of place.  Also discussed in dribbles and drabs was the topic of improvisation.  I had attended many improv shows run by Dave and though I have most of the Christopher Guest movies and hear the commentaries I have never wanted to do an improvised feature, let alone trade out my hard-written and ten-years fine-tuned screenplay for random shtick and paraphrasing just so people don’t have to learn lines and rehearse.   For me, this live action cartoon is a chance to express very specific stylistic elements. I would be robbing myself of that follow-through if I didn’t give my writing a chance to be vindicated by following the script and give my direction a chance to be vindicated by following my storyboards.  I did not want to ride the horse in the direction it wanted to go, especially because what was the horse?

Producer 2 had been a guy who had told Jay he would like to produce the movie, and that was all I knew. imdb showed him as art department. I was to add him on facebook and then arrange to meet, which took a while.  When we met for coffee he showed up with a friend.  That didn’t help focus the meeting.  He then said that he also wanted to be production designer or art department, and that was where his head was at.  I mentioned that I already had spoken to a guy for art department. But he said both could work on it. He also admitted he hadn’t read the script because he is, “visual.” I regret that I didn’t do a full vetting and press for what aspects of producing he felt confident in because with this sort of small movie the producer doesn’t have a production manager and line producer and locations manager to delegate to.  Such a producer has to be all- purpose.  And with limited resources it may not be so stellar to point to the finished product and say, “I produced that.”  This is also the person I would have to rely on for the business end of things and to even ensure that the movie is listed on imdb. I remember talking schedule and targeting May and working around my niece’s wedding.  But I also feel that short meeting was not exploited enough by me and I have a habit of putting off difficult conversations. I have to change that in the future.

The police officer was no longer cast.  That meant about three roles had been cast, Porno the Clown was Jay, Dave was to play this written version of his persona Sketchy (which he had remarked in the past I had gotten right), and Amy who I had seen in a couple of plays was going to play Reverend Beth.  There was a mostly unspoken idea that we would reach out to some members of the local clown community, including a couple of women who had appeared in the short films for the sake of continuity.  But at the same time, ten years can change people.  Even three years might make a difference. Tony may have been the person who expressed concern about Homo the Clown, and he was not to be in the movie after backing out, and yet he was close to Dave.  Others in that circle could be influenced but there was no way the script would be influenced.  If that character or other non-PC elements were a deal breaker, the deal must be considered broken.  Dave had also been dating someone who had some sharp views in arguments on Facebook, strong enough that I expect she would be unlikely to like the movie I intended to make.  I would be naive to think that might not be a factor.  At the end of out meeting Producer 2 said that he could give us a few days for free but there would have to be some sort of payment and Dave then talked about some leads he might have on people within his circle who might have money to invest.  I was reticent about letting someone else pitch the movie to people, especially since the tone of the meeting seemed to indicate we might not want to make the same movie.

Here is a video recording I made from the Comedy bar when Jay and Dave took a skit and monologue I had written called Orgy Etiquette and adapted it into a two-hander for a live audience.  It is fun, but also not the process that I would want to follow for the feature.  It did however convince me to make Dave’s clown persona the side-kick or associate of Porno the Clown in the feature.

Dave said on Facebook twice in the same message that he was having second thoughts about being involved in the movie.  So I took away some pressure (or that was my intent) and said I guess in the book version of the script I could change the name of Sketchy to Sloshy.  In hindsight, he might have seen that as me not caring about his involvement, which is not the case.  He had been in a previous film of mine years before, Big Babies, and was an excellent presence.  But the years building his base in improv and clown may have also made him someone that might overshadow the movie and it might have been a popularity contest that I would absolutely lose.  Mutiny would not be good for a movie in mid-production.  There is the saying that a battle is won or lost before anyone arrives at the battlefield. And besides being a movie where I have to protect it from censors on the extreme right who may not like Reverend Beth and those on the extreme left who may not like jokes at the expense of Homo the Clown I also have to be on guard against the movie turning from the carefully storyboarded live action cartoon that is fun to direct into banal coverage (recording) of improvisation and then “finding” the movie in the edit when for years I knew exactly where the movie was.  No matter who you want to work with, it should be dictated by the material and the vision.  Also, none of us were getting any younger and the clown community was predominantly people pushing fifty or sixty trying to feel youthful dressing as naughty clowns.  The median age of the movie had to change if the factor of Dave was no longer part of it.  Sentimentally, I would always prefer to bring back actors I have worked with for continuity in life.  But we have to want to make the same movie. We did meet for lunch when I needed to get back my DVD of the It mini-series from him, which I thought I had written off when he lost interest in the project.  I’ve kept cordial enough over it, even though one particular clown has given me the stink eye when I showed up for a pirate ship improv show as one of two people in the audience.

Discussing my back-up plan of just making it a novel, I was told by Dave that all my characters sound the same.  This I find untrue.  In a movie or play, each actor will have his or her own vocal characteristics to distinguish them and on the page I have simply kept most lines short for the sake of the rhythm of certain runs of dialogue where lines play off of each other in rapid succession.  It is not practical to say that a comment one character needs a few words to make another needs half a page of rambling to get across. In improvisation or live theater, that kind of thing can be indulged and it may be true to real life, but in the verisimilitude of a live action cartoon, it is more stylized.  And that is indeed a leap of faith considering that so many comedy directors today get rid of anything heightened. There are grounded elements to the film and I don’t want it to be joke, joke, joke.  But as Dave observed about Pee Wee’s Holiday the support cast should not be trying to compete on the same energy level as the crazy lead. The same principle would apply to Porno the Clown.  Actors might rather be the “wavy line” element and have the text be bland, rather than have to ground the film with straight-line, stable performances and have what they say be the wavy line factor.  But it is a quirk of my own voice as a writer that I do like playing with words.

The fall of Harvey Weinstein and the resulting boost of the PoundMeToo movement also meant that if I did get Porno the Clown made as a feature the way I wanted and if there was a screening to promote and if I got into a festival and had to speak on a panel I would have additional factors to discuss which I would rather not.  Porno the Clown would still be about an older straight white guy lusting after mostly younger women. People get that for free on the news.  I had also seen Maren Ade’s film Toni Erdmann about a professional young woman who has to cope with having an embarrassing father from whom she is estranged.  That had been – and still is – a thematic thread of this movie, but some of the air was taken out of my enthusiasm when this one redeeming element has now been taken.  So I focused my energy on completing the novelization, which might be the only thing that sees the light of day at the time of this writing.  No doubt that I should have pushed and arranged more table readings in 2014 to maybe stir up more juice for the movie.  I have a tenancy to coast. I don’t know how much of the ten years was coasting.  A draft would be done, sent out for someone to read and comment on or a contest to reject it and then I would have another look.  Maybe I imagine I could have done more.  The work of writing and then sketching storyboards can be tedious but I can do it when I am punchy or obsessive and it is natural to me.  The rest is only worthwhile if it is in the service of that.  And yet there are people covering topical stories in the most pedestrian way and being praised for it, just jumping in there and making it less about authorship and more about just getting something done.  Good for them. I just have a different itch. So I don’t know of there is a lesson as to how to have avoided the breakdown of collaborations except to have been more careful about the the reason they are initiated.  They say success is to be like water willing to take the shape of any glass or container.  I don’t have that.  Once my idea becomes specific, a lot of agreement and even tedium is needed to bring that to life.



Working with Murphy 4: Digital and Collaboration Atrophy

Murphy’s Law comes into play even with the most idealistic intentions.

A friend of a friend initiated a collective that eventually was called Group Therapy, the stated objective being that each weekend we could all be working on a new short and keep up our crafts for the sake of keeping active and having something to show.  It was to be a democracy where anyone interested would submit short scripts that could reasonably be shot with limited locations over a weekend and these would be voted on so that we might have four to do over a cycle of a month.

A script I had written four years before in a batch of other scripts, Support Group, now had a dated resolution but it was one location and a lot of characters so I modified it a bit and at the last minute slapped on a new title page, “Stereotypes Anonymous.”  It was one of the four scripts that got enough votes to get the go-ahead.  Maybe because some of our group were actors and there were a number of roles.  Chris, another member of the team, was initially supposed to direct it.  I thought I would detach from it and see what someone else does.  The Chris got a paid opportunity that made a conflict so it fell to me. Once I had worked out a seating plan and storyboarded it, I was then more committed. I modified the script to allow a couple of gimmicks that were new, and ultimately the only things people liked about the finished movie.  We were the last project slated to be shot, with fewer resources. But a lot of people came through with combined connections.  Somebody got us a karate dojo to shoot in, which reads basically as a room.  Somebody got us a real handgun for a character to wear.  Even though I wanted a gold charm SHAPED like a gun.  Instead it was a black weapon against a black t-shirt.  Someone got a Samuri sword which also allowed us to have an amusing scene people did not know how to react to.  I won’t link to this video, because it didn’t really set the world on fire.  But I enjoyed most of the people working on it.

A 360 degree pan of the circle of participants did not have the impact intended in the storyboard.  Instead of literally being in the center and panning around it needed to have the impact of floating past people, wide angle, with the camera close to the actors and maybe on a jib arm of some sort.  The short has a number of image ideas that I may try again in another project.  There is one soft focus shot that bothers me.  The owner of the camera was shooting and I may have stopped pestering him to check the focus by zooming to sharpen before each shot.  By not risking offense, I ended up with a soft shot.

There is bold content in “Stereotypes Anonymous” and I have to own the fact that it is very much my voice, dark and politically incorrect.  The intention was to cast people from the written categories and have them demonstrate the absurdity of their associated stereotypes.  The Asian girl wears a kimono and likes to take photos of the group and when outraged pulls a sword.  There is a gay man who likes to smoke and make snobbish remarks.  We shot it under the gun in one day, with actors needing to leave early.  Because I had storyboarded it we got away with moving from the few establishing shots to smaller groups within the circle. But the energy and sense of reaction or tension that might have existed earlier in the day of the shoot – which is hard to quantify – was lost. The upside was that when an actor had a rough time with his lines we could be patient and he didn’t have as many eyes on him.

Ultimately the editor of the group was busy with someone else’s project so I had to outsource and pay for that out of my own pocket. Had this project come together a year later, I would have had my own editing software.  Had it come together five years later, I would have also had a better camera than the one being used.  But it is the human resources that are the real value.  Which brings us to the next controversy.

After choosing the scripts we were going to produce that month, a fundraising event was organized.  I don’t know how much went into the pot but it would be a meaningless figure here.  Next came the ramp up for the following series of shorts.  One of the group founders decided that this time we would begin with fundraising and then choose the scripts.  Many had been read for the next session so we had an idea what might be the options but no voting had been done.  The plan was to canvas local businesses and ask them to buy an ad in the program for the screenings of the last batch of films at the National Film Board John Spotten theater.  A few of us questioned it without being especially articulate as to what might go wrong.  We could not anticipate what Murphy’s law had in store.  That is often the case.  The founder was one of the best canvassers and raised more than a  thousand dollars.  Then he thought why should he just put that into the pot for the group and subject his own script to a vote and possibly not have it chosen strictly on merit.  The movie he wanted to make was more arty and the narrative complicated and it also had many scenes and locations, so it was not following the perimeters of low budget and single location.  He convened meetings in which he advised those who could attend that he and the co-founder had decided the money raised (ostensibly for movies yet to be voted for, and by screening films everybody worked on) would be allocated first to his own film and after that any other films would be voted on. This caused me and others to protest and ultimately many of us left.  A bunch that stayed and continued with the founder called themselves Splinter Group and a couple of them may still have animosity to me or others for not playing along with the new paradigm.  Had we anticipated this and articulated the danger early on, I do not know if it would averted the problem but it would have posed the question:  Should money determine which movie gets produced?  Should fundraising determine which script is chosen?  In the end, all of the funds were used up on the art film and its director never screened it or uploaded.  I have never seen it.  He had a nice chat with me years later while I was working as a guard outside of a bank (exactly how you want to meet previous creative collaborators). He said people had copies of it but it didn’t turn out the way he wanted.

Here are some odds and ends from the next project under discussion:

The next year I set out to shoot a feature on Super 8 Film.  I spent about $600 on rolls of stock, thinking that the developing would just be a matter of dropping it at Shopper’s Drug Mart and that it was covered in the purchase price as it had been for decades (or at least since the days I was in film school).  But that policy ended.  I fit the main shoot into a week off from work.  I did shoot some of the with about 10 rolls of the stock and used a video camera to record sound and some of that came together in an edit but it just wasn’t as presentable as I had hoped.  An actor fell out at the last minute and I had to step into a role and had not memorized my own writing.  I also realized that I was excessively tired; later in the year I would be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  I was not the only one feeling tired either.  At the outset I had asked each prospective actor if they actually have the time to do a film and that I didn’t want it interfering with their work or school.  Once filming was well under way, I discovered the actors – especially our lead – showing up dead tired.  They were both doing their night jobs and going to school and then showing up without sleep.  On a certain level it seemed to work in some footage because it was about mind-reading. But it is not something I would have I was asked well into the film by a friend of a friend who had volunteered to be “producer” whether I would then allow him to be credited as co-director so that he could have a feature credit on his directing CV.  I had to say no.  He claimed that the lead actress had told him if he is not allowed to co-direct she will leave the project.  I called her up and asked if this is what she said.  She said no.  The whole point was for me to break into a feature.  Some of my scheduling was reasonable but racing against the clock was not always working.  Because of the producer presenting his hidden agenda, I decided to contact everyone and cancel the rest of the film.  Once it had been stopped, I had more time to look over my script and storyboard sketches and reassess.  Off and on, the reassessment has taken 13 years and counting.  Different movies have come along with a similar emphasis, so I have taken the material I cared about and had to graft it onto a different paradigm each time.

The above describes the second time I tried to initiate that feature.  The first scene shot was with an actor I have since used for several other projects but who ghosted me after the first shoot.  I might still use the footage.  It was just an attack scene in a part of the old LIFT building that was then under renovation.

The third time I tried to shoot, the third time I had cast the lead, was with an actor I had met when I was asked last minute to act in someone’s short.  The actor across from me was talented and gave an emotional performance that likely was not well served by my own lack of learned lines, the filmmaker’s lack of costume for me as a priest, and the lack of a confessional book. . . frankly the overriding sense that these two young guys had a camera that had fallen off of a truck and it was just being held off the shoulder because they didn’t have a tripod and there were “no rules” about filmmaking.  None of that inspired confidence.  They took none of my advice and so there was way too much recorded of me flubbing lines and likely no way to cut around it.  In hindsight, I should have taken the director aside and given him an ultimatum.  Some actors will definitely cram for a shoot and meet that challenge.  I didn’t.  I thought I had, but my memory let me down.  Still, it could have worked with specific camera decisions. Would have been nice to have that young actor’s performance.  Maybe when it became clear that the scene would not cut and had to be scrapped, that guy abandoned my project.  I shot with this guy on the Toronto subway, in the elevator of the CN Tower, and at a workplace of mine when the building was empty.  We got some good shots in.  I SHOULD HAVE had some sort of meeting with at least my villain and a couple of other actors, so he would have a sense of the team and community making the film so it is not just me.  He went with his girlfriend on a holiday to Prague and a couple of other places, so I tweaked the script a bit for the remainder of the shoots but when he returned even though he agreed to meet to pick up a hard copy of the revised screenplay he never showed up.  And returned no voice-mails.  I have imagined either he thought the script was just too many mini-shoots or he might have been angry that my unprepared acting ruined the other guy’s movie.

I finished shooting some rolls of Super 8 film in my home town on holiday that year, just burning through it thinking it was wasted on images of my parents and other family members but years later that is the footage that had value, especially after my dad passed away.  I had a similar experience with rolls of 35mm still film in college.  I would think I’ll shoot out the roll on kids and family and then I’m thankful to have those images when the project itself was otherwise rote and meaningless.

Both of the projects mentioned in this entry of the blog are having elements combined for one of my next projects.  Even though I am writing this from the most gun shy phase of my life, knowing how so many things can collapse. And this is only some of it.




Working with Murphy on Movies 3: Grants and Bigger Stakes

Back in 1999 there had been a pitch event run at the time by the Worldwide Shorts festival.  Sometimes taking a plunge into the most nerve-wracking exercise can reap benefits that were unexpected.  Had I been smart, I would have made that principle more standard operating procedure in my creative life rather than mere flashes of bravery.  Each of us participating had to pitch a short to a panel of representatives from the various television platforms of the day.  I was pitching “Klepto the Clown” and one of the panelists thought my physicality acting it out was suitably sleazy.  I think I got the best response from CBC, Vision, and Judy Gladstone of Bravo!  Michael O’Hara was also there pitching his own short called The Tackle Box.  A pair of ladies who were also filmmakers and may not want to be name dropped here went with us afterward for coffee and to absorb the experience of pitching.  Michael offered to produce Klepto the Clown.  Sounded good.  And ultimately, it all turned out well.  One of the better experiences and with no serious battle stories.  Michael put in the application with my initial storyboard thumbnails and script as well as the idea of setting it to music by his sister Mary Margaret O’Hara.  We got the grant, which was that stamp of credibility because it was FOR someone.  It officially paid for half of a short’s budget in those days. We coasted expecting funds or a loan to come from the money fairy, but ended up getting an extension for the deadline and by then I had a couple of thousand to loan the production from personal savings renting a room and working in security.   This got the wheels going.  My friend Deborah Bojman allowed me to use her mother’s house as a location, and we had to get a permit from the city for shooting on the street out front for one shot but that worked out. Initially my storyboarded rendering of Klepto looked like a friend of mine who I had in mind for the character.  But he had become union and we were looking at non-union because Michael’s daughter Maddie was not yet in the union and was likely going to be the co-lead who foils the plot of Klepto the Clown.  Michael had seen an article in Toronto Life magazine about Gino Empry, so he arranged for us to visit Gino’s place.  That might be a story Michael will want to tell some day.  Gino showed us a tape from his episode of Made in Canada, the Rick Mercer series he was on.  Quite fun. Worthy of note is that Gino answered the door in housecoat and red trunks like briefs. Michael asked me to design how Klepto should look if Gino plays the role and I drew something up that utilized Gino’s qualities.  But when I showed up to shoot, the hair and make-up looked kind of like many traditional clowns and I didn’t push the issue.  Gino’s maybe real, maybe fake hair might have been a sensitive issue.  During the shoot I remember being taken aside by the AD and the DPs and reminded to just roughly show the blocking with the actors and then leave so it can be lit.  But the shoot went smoothly due to it being heavily storyboarded and easily scheduled for moves downstairs and upstairs. Michael had posted for kids to come to Klepto’s party, and we were fortunate to have a wall of parents present during the birthday scene that required children.  I had to get used to working with an audience.   I shot more than I needed and could have trimmed more just for running time. I was lucky to have a friend who could access a CBC off-line system so the movie could be delivered on broadcast quality tape format. But I should have let the editor be more ruthless.  I also failed to put a time code onto that tape or a copy for the composer Rusty McCarthy to synchronize the score. I had done off-line straight-cut editing in community TV back home, but did not know this aspect of the process and didn’t ask my intrepid editor about it or the control likely would have been added to an additional copy.  Rusty did a good job matching the visuals regardless of me making the job harder.

Since it is a purely visual short it is not fall-down funny.  Nobody has commented, “Hey, that opening shot seems to be a reference to the Hitchcock movie Marnie starting on the “baggage” toted around by the kleptomaniac.”  Our short played well with an audience at the National Film Board John Spotten theater, but when I first saw it it was on a TV in a coffee shop where I was the only crew member to show up.  At least I witnessed it airing on Bravo! for the first time.  Ironically, I had to make the tough choice to use only Rusty’s score as audio and not include the vocals of the great Mary Margaret whose name likely helped get us the grant.  The soundtrack had to be all about punctuating the visuals, and Mary’s experimental vocals were occurring at random intervals that were a distraction.  She did however fit well into the verbal theme Rusty created for the end credits on some versions of the movie.  The more detailed account of the project can be heard in the commentary track video.

Shortly after Klepto had been completed, I had submitted another short around that I had carried and refined for years.  This was not part of the whack of short scripts I had written in 2000 or so.  It had taken many forms.  Big Babies was a musical satire.  Initially I wanted to submit it to the Ontario Media Development Corporation Calling Card program.  The first hitch was that it was producer-driven and the producer could not also be the director.  So I put the word out for producers, and presented the script to a more than I might remember.  One lady who read it and heard the CD of songs turned me down and a year or so later got nominated for an Oscar for her own short.

The demo CD of songs had been produced by Rusty again who had bee given a short window of time to set my crazy lyrics to music.  I had been focused on the Calling Card deadline. It had become the Al Waxman Calling Card program.  But it ended right after I missed what appeared to be the last deadline.  I was still getting response from potential producers and going through with interviews.

I did finally get an Emerging Artists Grant from the Ontario Arts Council.  I figured if I follow through maybe it can be submitted to CBC’s Canadian Reflections.  In hindsight, that might have been naive considering the outlandish nature of my project.  I still felt I should have a woman as producer considering the heat I would receive tackling a topic like the abortion debate with satire. So I did end up going that way and making a leap of faith, careful to state outright what I expected to spend in total but withing I had put a lot more on paper besides a script and storyboards.  A formal before-the-fact budget should have been worked up ahead of production.  There is too much to say about Big Babies.

When I was gearing up to shoot, I was a volunteer stuffing envelopes at LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) when then coordinator Roberto Ariganello asked what I was up to.  He then told me that he had been on the OAC committee choosing projects and had fought for Big Babies because he was the only male and everyone else was against a male dealing with the sensitive topic.  He pointed out the storyboards and song demo CD and believed in it.  He asked why I was just stuffing envelopes to make up my volunteer hours.  He suggested that I take over the Directing Actors for the Camera workshop that the usual instructor Bruce LeBruce had taken leave from.  That was a mostly positive experience, but when you state that there will be a camera to work with you had better make sure one is available and that you are talking to the right people about whether it can be moved from one room to another.

Before shooting Big Babies, I could confidently prepare a class and spend a weekend playing teacher.  Even if it meant arranging a bonus session a week or so later to actually give hands-on experience. After shooting Big Babies, it cleared my head and energized me to write several feature screenplays I had been noodling with.  But there was also a downside resulting from the principle that all must be made to understand the idea of a FINITE figure when it comes to the cost of a movie.

And, no matter how burned out I was after filming I should have been more demonstrative and make triple sure everyone hears each other.  The producer on this film felt like she was my stooge and I hadn’t realized that.  Communicating between the lines on a film crew is not communicating at all.  I have to remember to tell everybody that.  Anything that MUST be known must be said directly and with full attention.  Also, I’ll just say that when an actress said she was allergic to sesame seeds I was LUCKY to notice that the individual who had been told as much delivered an assorted bag of bagels to the craft services table, which included a couple with the dangerous seeds.  I had to warn the actress off of eating bagels. Personality conflicts shouldn’t lead to a medical emergency.  Also, maybe find a way to ask whether any key crew might be on medication or hormones or anything that might cause unusual behavior.     Even though they don’t legally have to disclose.

If someone arrives on set to take photos officially, five that person the film rolls or data chip necessary and ensure that you receive it personally before they leave.  You do not want to be hounding a middle person for copies of photos you have paid for. Especially under the time crunch of sending out your film to festivals.

Here is a short that was inspired by nutty things that were said in e-mails.  I put them into the mouth of a parking valet to generate the script for this sketch:

My grant was $4000.  I expected to match that out of my own guard job savings, making a total budget of $8000. This was agreed verbally twice. Also, the plan had been that actors, the sound recordist, the Cinematographer, and second assistant camera would be paid positions but I would do my own continuity and have no First Assistant Director and the rest would be volunteer positions. By increments, this formulation was compromised and I failed to clamp down.  The producer on a low to no budget project would be expected to not be the head of a producing department but instead to be production manager, line producer, and location but next thing you know I’m being told the producer’s condo/office has production assistants for co-op and that they were being delegated tasks like phone calls and call lists and so on and their hours would be charged to the production.  Apart from some contact numbers that didn’t work when I tried them (and may have been wrong only on my copy of the list, since the producer refused to give any information citing “ways and means of doing business”), the production assistants were capable young women and were just caught in the middle.  But ultimately, there was budget overage beyond $12000 and then $500 for a lawyer and $500 for a website it turned out I had no control over.  That and whatever incredible stress and abuse is worth.  Here is a video where I read an old issue of the LIFT newsletter I wrote based on this experience.  The day it was published and sent out to members I got a silent hang-up call from an unknown number.  May be unrelated, maybe not.

After a series of e-mails requesting production stills and the removal of the website, for example, you don’t want to get a voice-mail from a police constable ostensibly giving friendly advice to stop. Even if it is a distinct yet lyrical name that had been dropped months later by his acquaintance during a less contentious time.  This meant going down the rabbit hole of finding out the term for Canada’s version of internal affairs.  It all represented a tremendous drain on the spirit and the hours of my one life.  And ultimately, attending a Legal and Business Affairs For Filmmakers and Producers workshop at LIFT only resulted in more stress.  The instructor before class said it sounded like I was in the right. Then just before class my nemesis shows up and I neglected to address the proverbial elephant in the room, so the instructor (now an annoyingly successful filmmaker himself) thought I should have advised him right away, which in hindsight is right.  Even though it might have created immediate drama.  He didn’t return my call when I through about engaging him. But when I did find someone to send a registered letter, guess which lawyer responded on behalf of my nemesis.

For the next fifteen years or so, there would be trollish little internet shenanigans that were supposed to be of unknown origin but were not.

This is another case where it might be more informative to listen to the commentary video below.  Even if it is the more polite version:

Working With Murphy 2:Beyond College

More Moviesplaining out of me.  On the day of graduation, one of my instructors asked if I had anyone there to see me get me go up. I told him my mom would be there so he deemed it worthwhile to point out that my shirt buttons were out of alignment.  Good save. I have finally learned something worthwhile from him. Our previous conversation days before in his office found him asking me what I plan to do after school with my life and I said I’ll write my screenplays and direct them.  He said, “So you plan to pass yourself off as a writer-director, eh?” There might not have been an eh but it’s there for the tone.  I honestly do not remember what I said in response.  I found irritation boiling up.  Had I not believed he still could lower my mark or something, I might have said, “Better than passing myself off as a writing and directing teacher!”  Or, “Yes, I’ll fool people by writing the script and then directing it.” To this day, that mind fu*k still bothers me.  It makes me potentially a control freak.  I don’t want to put an asterisk beside my credits.  A screenwriter gets feedback on a script so it might not be word for word dictated to me by the Archangel Gabriel.  But even if someone points out an “issue” with  script, I like to solve it myself. In directing, I do like to storyboard everything and follow that as closely as possible.  There are so many ways Murphy’s Law can trip you up but the only way I feel vindicated for my vision is if I follow it.

After graduation, I had a health problem that made walking difficult and ran me down so I returned home from the big city and recuperated at my dad’s house. I found myself writing out monologues that had only been glimmers of ideas a year before.  Something had opened up in my mind after downshifting and beginning to convalesce.  Organized and performed in a couple of monologue shows, and for the community channel 12 Halloween show that year I knuckled down and made a short called The Basement about a young woman who has car trouble and asks a nice old gentleman to use his phone and he traps her in his basement.  We shot it at my dad’s place. Used equipment from Cable 12, shot on 3/4 inch.  The old man was played by a nice man who had operated camera for a one-woman show I had recorded in the studio.  A couple of local theater actors had turned me down.  The heroine was played by a girl I met in a production of Dark of the Moon.  The lead of that production had said no. A lot of this movie turned out quite nicely. The actors were enthusiastic.  It had some dark humor and suspense.  As written, it had a great turning of the tables and escape.  Unfortunately, this was a two day shoot and the second day would have been a coffee scene for character development and then the escape from the basement but my actress was a no show.  Cell phones being less common then, I heard nothing until a week later.  So I only shot the bad-guy’s side and implied the death of the girl he had locked in the basement washroom.  One joke is, “Did you die in there?” I was told finally that the reason she was AWOL on day two was that she stayed with a girlfriend who had been suicidal.  My unspoken reaction to that was “so… did her place have a phone?” But maybe she didn’t have my number and I just let it go. Years later, since we know some of the same people, I met that actress in Toronto and then later on Facebook we touched base.  Bottom line was that she asked me not to post The Basement on-line.  Annoying.  But I have been re-adapting it off and on for a possible remake that I can share in the future.

The next year I wrote a short called Forty Winks, about a charm a child wears to bed that will freeze time while he is asleep and because his babysitter is in contact at the moment he conks out, she is able to roam around find the neighborhood in stasis. There are some tableaux moments she re-positions.  I started shooting with a friend of the family, and still used a couple of shots where she could not be identified.  But I ended up with an actress who was very good despite her reputation for maybe starting a fire at school.  The boy arguably was a little too old to be told bedtime stories.  While some of the movie might have been clunky, it mostly turned out.  There had been a written enactment of a legend of Forty Winks that involved a harem and a pharaoh winking at each wife before he slept and them clinging to his garment as time froze.  I cast the pharaoh with one of my home town’s strongest young actors and he was in a robe on a throne in the studio and ready but the sisters who had played the friends of the lead in another scene were supposed to be featured harem girls and they did not show up.  So a chunk of the movie is more telling than showing. And it may not have made me look good for the actor who did show up.  His father had turned down the role of the psycho in the previous year’s short.  When I made the leap back to Toronto permanently, I showed that actor a terrible draft of another script (where I tried to combine two of my ideas and it was too busy). He showed up drunk outside the place where I was staying and just yelled in passing, “It’s garbage!  It’s garbage!”  So he’s gone on to better things but as far as I’m concerned he is in the a-hole file.

I did another community TV Halloween short, this time called Maniac Wannabe about various horror situations going wrong because the prospective victim is smarter or the would-be killer is accident prone.  In hindsight it was pretty ambitious.  One exterior scene was compromised because I had the wrong filter on.  It was yet another camera borrowed from the station and I had overlooked why the image seemed so easy to see in the viewfinder.  It was over-exposed, but I was able to take out some of the light in post. The killer is a successful stand-up comic and MC in Toronto now.  No thanks to me.  We also did a strange short about wandering around the public library fearing he is being watched or followed.  It allowed for some good editing gimmicks and represents the one time I got some production value by getting the library to allow us to film during the closed morning of “Rae Days” when the Provincial government cut back on library hours.

I visited Toronto to help a couple of other filmmakers in a minor capacity.  I was continuity and second assistant camera on an “erotic” anthology.  I was continuity and a production assistant on a Humber classmate’s black and white feature.  That was another case where one of the actresses did not want to sign a release after shooting had started.  That made for some nerves but must have been resolved.  That movie was not finally edited until more than a decade when a couple of us really badgered the director, but he finally had a screening and we got closure and a copy and he is still the one of us that has directed a feature at the time of this writing.  One danger is that right after shooting something you might hear the dialogue differently.  There might be a temptation to lose passion for a project once some of the steam pressure has vented.  However imperfect a movie might be, better to complete it near the time of shooting.

In the year 2000, a school friend from the same project who had encouraged me to make a more permanent leap back to Toronto sold me a roll of 16mm film stock that required an exterior shoot.  I had sat down to type up a batch of short scripts with the intention of gradually shooting them all.  One was “Klepto the Clown” and one was called “Support Group” and one was “Nic Fit” of the few that actually got shot.  I had met a random character named Sterling in a Second Cup who noticed I was storyboarding Nic Fit and let me know he had a Bollex camera he had not yet used to shoot anything.  He had spend enough money on the camera that it put a strain on his marriage, and yet it sat there.  Many of us buy cameras and then don’t dive into projects.  They can be monuments to inertia.  Another friend (brother of the guy who sold the stock) agreed to help load the film.  A magazine was rented from LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto) as well as a tripod but I neglected to test the mount and it didn’t fit.  Found out on the location, a lot behind my cousin Linda’s apartment building.  The behind the scenes account is a little more elaborate in the following commentary video.


Working with Murphy on Movies

Nobody wants to collaborate with Murphy of Murphy’s Law when it comes to making movies, but we have no choice but to collaborate with that POS.  Here are some sob stories about encountering situations where I failed to anticipate what could and would possibly go wrong.

First year Humber Super 8mm assignment: We should a parallel action short I conceived and directed which relied on specific movement and cuts to create scene transitions.  A classmate who looked enough like a vagrant because of the Nineties Grunge trend was recruited to act.  His last name sounded like the opposite of his character. He would also supposedly help with post.  He was supposed to meet me in the library to help edit.  I was in plain view and waited but he did not show up, so I did the edit myself, splicing physical film the old fashioned way.  I was pleased to see how my planned cut came together.  Looked forward to screening it.  Then I packed up and made the mistake of doing what we were told to do — putting the equipment and finished reel back into our crew bin on the shelves of the post-production classroom.  I went home that night feeling I had saved the day and showed up for the morning screening but my film was not there. Grunge boy showed up and handed the reel to the instructor.  In turn with the others, it was screened and I was horrified.  I was not vindicated by this at all.  My work had been destroyed.  This tool had come in early or after I left and had gone through the film and snipped either side of my splices and re-spliced it.  He was a vandal.  It was not just a matter of “learning to edit” and “getting experience.”  It was passive-aggressive and rendered my involvement worthless.  To redress the matter would require him to create something he cared about and then for me to destroy that.  If it had occurred to me to try to get the guy thrown out of the program, no doubt he would plead misunderstanding or that his was a “fine cut” and he is “here to learn.”  Decades later, I still think back to this anecdote and feel the rage.  Over the years, the same guy has proven to be a low-life despite the fact that he gets work in film as an electric.  Had I not been naive, I would have put a note in the crew bin, “Bringing the edited reel home.  Will bring it for screening.” In a time-travel fantasy, that is the advice for my younger self.

We did a 16mm film documentary, and I suggested the Guardian Angels of Toronto having seen them ONCE on the subway.  I had a flurry of amusing editing ideas that would give that subject energy.  The vandal was against the subject because he didn’t like the idea of Guardian Angels (volunteer protectors against violence and crime) having a presence. No shock.  I was technically the writer, which has little meaning in documentaries. I had to submit storyboards so that the guy in “the cage” would issue our camera gear. That policy makes sense, but then I found out that we were not allowed to have the writer and director be the same person. Another classmate, Trina, was named director. She went over my storyboards and agreed with them. Then she had to be absent for an appointment so the crew advised me through producer Shaun that I should direct that day.  So I did the majority of it, the exteriors. That included half of a transition, a whip pan from the police 52 division that would take us to the headquarters of the Guardian Angels. The swish-pan was storyboarded, a transition gimmick seen in Some Like it Hot and sort of on the old Batman show.  Pan quickly away from something to a blur, cut on the most blurry frame of that and the following image which begins on the fast pan and settles on the new setting.  Vandal was to shoot the first half, the pan-away. I asked if he knew how to do a swish pan.  He was affronted and said, “Yes!”  Then I watched him and new his pan was wandering and wonky.  I politely asked if I can take a stab at it.  Mine was smooth.  The following day, Trina was back and we had to shoot the other half in the Guardians office. She wanted to skip the pan-in.  I confess I insisted we get it shot even if it isn’t used. She may have been miffed at not having the last word as nominal director. Audio of an interview was used as our sound, so there wasn’t much need for me to write narration.   When we looked at the raw footage I explained to our instructor why the swish was there and how it was to be used.  Yet, when the editor had his way, he delivered a cut that omitted my swish transition but kept the meandering, shaky attempt Vandal had done.  It was a disaster.  I spoke to our producer and asked if I can use the outtakes and restore what I had storyboarded.  He said yes.  I did a marathon editing session and made the doc as it should be.  The next day, there was a pall in the air in the cafeteria.  The editor was a popular basketball player and some (especially not from my crew) thought I had crossed a line.  I was put on the spot in production management class and had to apologize especially for hurting the feelings of the editor (never mind that he had ignored my guidelines and embarrassed me).  I got a nod of approval for my apology from the person whose opinion meant nothing to me, the vandal.  But eventually the editor looked at my cut and realized I was right and most of it was kept.  After all the melodrama, I was invited to direct the 5 minute drama the next semester. Years later, I put a satirical voice-over to it and put it on youtube.

I showed up at the earliest meetings for 16mm drama with a bunch of outlines, little paragraphs and titles.  Anyone could have pitched their own script ideas but one of mine seemed most promising so it was chosen.  I then wrote that into an eight page script and then edited that down to five pages.  It was agreed, so we went forward. Board Beyond Belief was about a customer returning a Ouija board to a service counter.  The shoot went well.  The cinematographer often asked to look at my storyboards to get it right. Then the editing process was like waiting for a baby to be born.  The editing partners included Vandal. When the actors arrived with their mates to see the screening with our class, what they saw had jump cuts because the most basic editing of a simple conversation could not be competently achieved.  Thankfully this time there had been a negative that I could take in and get transferred (albeit only to VHS at time). I took this to an off-line suite and did a complete video edit.  I took it to the screenings of another class and it played well so I felt vindicated.

In third year, I had planned to make a movie called Art Show if my script won people over.  It did not.  The script that had support was by Randy Chase, the writer in class more prolific than me.  He would also be producer and continuity.  That year I was living with my First A.D. Peter and his girlfriend.  I think Randy and Peter were popular enough that some of the crew rallied around them, and as I had asked them to be involved with Art Show I somehow retained the position of director on our 20 minute 16mm film drama project, Hearing Things.  Again I storyboarded the whole thing, let my cinematographer look through the thumb nail version with me and then I refined them after seeing the most likely location. What could go wrong?  The highly capable DP did the ordering of equipment and said he would hot access a video tap.  (In hindsight I think that may have been a fib so I wouldn’t be scrutinizing each shot in progress, which proved highly necessary.) He also showed me some excellent camera tests with various film stocks so I could choose the best look.  But then to save money and without asking he went for a cheap Agfa stock that proved to be kind of grainy and not what I would have asked for.

The opening shot was to zoom out from the darkness of the heroine’s profile to end below her shoulders so it is still a medium close-up profile.  Everybody had a thick booklet of all the storyboards.  I questioned why the camera was so far back and asked to move it closer. I wasn’t tough enough.  I’m sure when I checked the end position it was the shoulder shot.  The woman’s arm feeling at her ear had to read on screen, so I was furious to see that the zoom pulled all the way out and far away and her hand coming up was a detail that barely registered.  We also had an anticipatory pan.  She turns her head upon hearing her sister and looks down a wall to where she will emerge.  I had production stills and storyboards of this and was clear of the finishing position.  But what they showed our instructor was a meandering pan.  And in this case it was two smart guys, the DP and camera operator.  I heard them claim “That’s what Will wanted,” and was tempted to throw them under the bus but I didn’t.  There was also a planned jump cut from a wide view of the mailbox at the end of the driveway to a closer detailed shot of the mailbox; the cut was to occur while the camera was blocked by a passing car. This was before everyone had cell phones, so a miscommunication with the driver meant that he drove the car past once and then turned around and drove out of the driveway and onto the highway thinking he had passed twice. The producer was off that day and I think my roommate AD had a dentist appointment.  There was nothing in place to goose me or remind me.  I had been through the ringer for being a control freak and now I was too sedate and amenable on set.  There was one day when we had a huge dialogue scene and out DP had to go to work at a hotel. I told him we have to finish and maybe I could just shoot it myself.  The threat of me taking over anything caused him to call in and delay his shift, so that was one small victory.

Our sound recordist had his apartment robbed so out mic and the Nagra recorder went missing.  The school wanted him to pay for the replacement and instead he chose to drop out of the course.  So our post-production sound guy filled in on location as recordist.  After each take I’d ask “Good for Camera?”  “Good for sound?” and get a yes before saying it was a keeper.  There was one take where the framing was bad – a head in lower frame  – and the performance was not so good so that was not a keeper.  Camera, Performance and Sound had to be deemed acceptable.  There was an interior dialogue scene where I wanted to match the point of someone sitting into a chair as the conversation took another turn. Standard cut on the motion of sitting, from wide shot to close-up.  If helps engage the seriousness in the close-up.  Well, despite keenly watching to make sure the timing lined up with the takes I had chosen, the editor advised me that because different takes were used they didn’t allow for that editing choice.  The post-production sound guy had listened to the takes while transferring to mag and decided which ones he deemed to have the most clear sound.  Now direction, framing and performance were low priority and sound clarity decided which takes were kept.  The editor and post sound guy had spent Christmas holiday getting that editing done.  Despite the fact that I had marked up the script and given storyboards and they had my number for any questions they worked independently instead of interdependently.  Where I had no ideas for sound I would write “doesn’t matter” in the margin but I should have said “editor’s choice” because it gave the wrong message.  In most cases I was specific about sound.  In one case, a pan from the husband’s thoughtless purchase of a new car to the heroine in profile reacting was intended to be filled by a rise of score.  But the production management instructor saw the cut in progress without music and suggested cutting out most of the pan and starting the profile from her nose.  This ignored my note mentioning the composer.  One scare we had was that part way in, the lead actress resisted signing a talent release because she thought she would become quite famous.  (I have no recollection how that was resolved by the producer/writer.) I do know that when copies needed to be made on VHS for cast and crew it was done at a TV station where our editor had his co-op placement and he forgot to set the levels.  So the first run of copies for Hearing Things to play for agents and so on had muddy sound nobody could hear.

20 years later, the producer Randy presented me with a 3.4 inch tape which I had transferred to digital.  I was temped to change the end credits to put my name first as director but I kept it in the random way the editor did it, irritating as it is. There were only a couple of small edits I indulged in.

More examples in another blog. . . . .





Directing and Screen Grammar

If there is a syntax of cinema, Steven Spielberg is the most fluent.  But he doesn’t have to be the director.  Anyone who believes in and learns to apply film grammar can direct a movie correctly, setting challenges that create problems and limitations and then figuring out how to solve those.

This is not about being dogmatic, but having a desired visual message and conveying it with whatever clarity or ambiguity is appropriate.  Every beat of a scene may have a shot or a move or blocking cue that is most appropriate.  Darren Aronofski in his commentary for Requiem for a Dream says that shooting two actors across a table the one with more depth and detail in the background is the character with power.  Martin Scorsese says that when character are shot over shoulder they are usually in agreement or considering each other and when they are shot in single close-ups they are isolated literally and in their own minds.  Sydney Pollock says a long lens allowing the person in close-up to be in sharp focus with the background and passing people in soft or blurred helps add to the feeling of being alone in a crowd.  Adrian Lyne in Fatal Attraction shows that you can plan to shift the camera axis with dolly track movie behind one actor from over one shoulder to the other when there has been a shift in the tone of a conversation and the actors trade sides of the screen.

Most people who crow “there are no rules” are not in love with cinema enough to absorb what a movie director potentially brings to a show.  They may be lazy.  They might not know the right tool for the right job.  They may shoot handheld just because they don’t happen to have a tripod or because it is the most expedient or because a faux documentary approach helps disguise a lack of aptitude for direction.

Here is a lie:  There are two kinds of movies, personal expression of your authentic voice and empty Michael Bay tent-pole movies that just want your money.

Here is the truth:  There are many kinds of movies, in all genres, and the authentic voice can be a celebration of the craft and the whimsical gesture of creation. Some are better written than others, and some are better directed than others.  Michael Bay should not represent all tent-pole movies, since his kinetic moves and cuts appear arbitrary and there are many less financially successful action directors whose discriminating use of the frame and the cut rank far above him.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy definitely wanted your money, but it was also the vision of a man who had a scale model of Gotham City in his basement he used for planning shots.  The message of a movie is not merely the content but the care and the dance of it.  One might not be drawn to the premise of Brokeback Mountain but upon seeing it must admit that Ang Lee did a good job of presenting it.  People may respect the casting of a Robert Altman film, or the subject matter in a historical context, but he is a particular sacred cow who too often preferred the approach of non-direction. David Cronenberg has said that movies about movies are about nothing.  But they can exude the love of movies and the potential of the frame.  Robert Rodriguez gets across his love of action, efficient design, family, and political satire while ever-sharpening his deft skill in putting images together.  A Chinese period soap opera can be riveting in fight scenes where the coordination of the camera is part of its dance of action. There is a call for diversity and new voices (either in direction or likely writer-directors) and if it results in a First Nations filmmaker being to Natives what Rodriguez was for Latino or Mexican fans of movies I will eagerly look for that person’s work.  It would be a shame for someone to think that because of the “importance” or seriousness of a topic style would somehow be crass, and it results in a stockpile of shaky documentaries about glue sniffing and suicide in isolated areas. To simply record information may be worthy use of equipment and suitable for youtube clips of evidence but may not warrant a film.

Some people claim that even the concept of merit is invented and promoted by Caucasians and straight males to keep them in the role of Director.  That’s another lie. Look at the early movies that Spike Lee and Ernest Dickerson made together. That is merit on display. Look at Todd Haynes movies, a director who happens to be gay and was discovered by producer Christine Vachon when she saw Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a movie made with Barbie dolls.  James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Aquaman) is one of the finest new directors of today. As a test, try sitting through Fast and Furious 6 directed by Justin Lin and then watch Furious 7 directed by James Wan and you should sense that Lin’s decisions may have been delegated and arbitrary in the fashion of Michael Bay while Furious 7 feels tight, focused and directed with discrimination and personality despite the production problem of the star Paul Walker’s death.  Lady Bird by Gretta Gerwig is engaging and is directed with style.  Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch) leads us and uses the frame with commitment, confidence and subversive humor despite often unsettling content.  I was especially pleased with an interview she gave moderated by Roger Corman; when asked if she was inspired by typical indie art house example Jim Jarmush, Ana Lily said no she was more inspired by Robert Zemeckis.  Good for her.  For that, I cheer for her career.  Near Dark is my favourite of the movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, not so much the more recent political movies with which she has been awarded.  Style does not have to be conflated with content.

If someone can’t shut up on social media crying about the Male Gaze in photography or colonialism or bemoaning the heterosexual, that person might be best suited for blogs or angry tweets and maybe not the craft of movie-making.    The question is why something has to be a film and not a ten-minute rant on youtube or a college thesis or a blog.  Cinema doesn’t have a gender or a race.  It is its own language, and most of the people who have evolved it at key points have been men. But Leni Riefenstahl knew how to place her cameras, despite the work being in the service of evil.  Triumph of the Will is not a good film, as judged by history, but it is well directed and remains worthy of study by film students.   By the same token, a movie can have the most idealistic and righteous intentions but if it is not a directorial statement of style and power it need not be a movie.

It has been said that if you can possibly see yourself doing anything other than directing movies then do that other thing.  And as much as we hear on-line about “new voices” (not those undiscovered as yet, but those other than the straight while males) frankly some people just like to talk and can vocalize and rally and network like pros but may be averse to storyboard sketching of shots in advance and may even let the cinematographer conceive shots, making that person the de facto co-director. Plenty of comedies are made that way, with the credited director mostly a writer-producer who has a rapport with funny actors.  They might be comprised of the most generic recordings of coverage, even if they are funny due to the cast.  It can be frustrating to see someone soar who doesn’t seem to be a movie director (except as credited on screen and in a whack of imdb entries).

Ava DuVernay has twenty years of credits in marketing and publicity.  That is the bulk of her imdb list.  In Selma she crossed the line or the axis in covering a few scenes of dialogue.  I thought the movie was well cast but the directing not noteworthy. She had much support having made a documentary about the prison industrial complex – important subject. But the answer to why she was being talked up as the next big name in directors appears to be the accumulation of good will she has earned from other filmmakers in helping them through marketing and publicity work.  Knighted by Oprah, she might still continue directing even if super hero movie The New Gods flounders as bad as A Wrinkle in Time. But for every Ava there is a Patti Jenkins who ranges to the character study of Monster to the bright and measured thrills and laughs of Wonder Woman.  In the end, people know the story of the movie and also (more than ever) the story of how the movie happened and who contributed what.  Jenkins turned down an early offer of Wonder Woman but didn’t like the approach or the studio’s take, and then turned down Thor 2 for the same reason.  She essentially said during a Hollywood Reporter roundtable that, “It is important not to be so eager to do a project that you don’t examine what your collaborators want to do and whether they want to make the same movie. Even a tiny difference in the goal shouldn’t be ignored at early stages of discussion because that can eventually derail things as the film is being made.”

Nobody gets a “turn” at being a movie director.  Some people are focused on hiring and money and status and the statistics as to how many of what demographic have the job. But that can be distracting for someone starting out.  Anyone can pick up a DSLR or better for a reasonable price and shoot HD 1080p with a setting of 24 frames per second and get something that looks just right.  They can also get reasonable 4K cameras if they have the computer power to edit with it.  They can work with family and friends. In the late Nineties, Toronto filmmaker Ruba Nadda shot 16mm short films with a Bolex using her sisters as actors.  She would make film prints and send them off to festivals.  She has now worked with Oscar caliber actors and made Sabbah, Cairo Time, Inescapable, and October Gale as well as TV shows like NCIS, Hawaii 5-0 and Roswell, New Mexico. Today, creating a movie can be done on a cell phone. Best if the ease and cheapness is also counterbalanced with precision and genuine respect for how the right camera placement can transform a scene from “coverage” (wide establishing shot, close-ups, over-shoulders of the whole scene inclusive) to genuine movie directing.



Story, script, and feedback

Giving feedback on writing can take insight and a certain talent of its own.  If you are willing to take the time to compose a screenplay, it might also be worth letting people know the kind of feedback you need.  Maybe you just want to track how the reader feels or is engaged or bored from scene to scene. You may want to know whether you are clear enough or whether your ambiguity or withholding of information engages curiosity or frustration.

You may know that a screenwriting circle you belong to tends to discuss only the broad strokes, so asking them to read a four page outline might help kick the tires on your story.  Too many drafts that are not ready for feedback, full of typos, are submitted for premature feedback and it can hurt the writer’s image.  A table reading where actors are determined to go through it cold may mean discovering speed bumps that could have been ironed out in advance.  If one reader is busy checking text messages during the read and misses cues, a screenplay that relies on rhythm can lose its charm.  Any gathering of people should be the chance to hear the script work.  But another problem with table readings is that if the screenplay is so dialogue heavy it plays like a radio drama those listening will consider it a huge success but it will not be cinematic.  It will be pictures of people talking.  This doesn’t allow a cinema director much to work with.

Also, figure out how to break the news to prospective actors that you ideally plan to shoot what you wrote so that the writing is vindicated instead of replaced with paraphrasing or improvisation to placate cast members who want to avoid learning dialogue.  It can be hellish to find out someone doesn’t get the stylized approach to your patter or a heightened language or they are just used to generating their own material and believe the written word to be arbitrary.  They may feel vocal characteristics of actors are not enough to distinguish them and that what one character takes a few words to convey another should need half a page. Improvisation can take longer and may not inter-cut properly.  For a low-budget film, straying from the script means having the ground shift under the feet of the director.  And as common as it may be, a writer may have to fight for fidelity to the work and to avoid a committee sensibility.

Maybe the most commonly read draft or output of a script should not have everything in it.  You might create a second document with embellishments that might have thrown some readers. I once forgot the word “pristine” for a cleaning lady’s hand and used as a place holder “perfectly white” and forgot to replace it. That may have been taken the wrong way by someone.  I also had a domino effect after hearing someone’s long-delayed feedback that a couple of jokes were (in his mind) “punching down” and I could only reply, “You have to follow your own gut. No hard feelings if you don’t want to do the movie.” Some subjective and philosophical issues and interpretations have to be handled outside of the script.  You either will allow someone else to decide what stays and what goes based on their sensitivity or you want the script to represent your own risks, tastes, and point of view.  You might want to avoid what the Chinese call beizuo or the false virtue signalling that goes on so much in Western culture.