Tuesday, October 25, 2011

@ManMadeMoon says: “Write Smart”

And so the first Line by Line season drew to a close. Four months of meeting, of listening to inspiring individuals and - above all - of writing and sharing writing. Improving writing. Collaborating on writing. 4 (almost 5) feature films were written, as well as a number of shorts, a doco treatment and much more (many people liked to keep their cards close to their chest). Interesting to look back to where we started and to see where we got to: http://linebyline-melbourne.blogspot.com/2011/05/call-to-pens-and-keyboards.html

So we had to go out on a bang. And who better to keep us inspired by filmmaking than Duncan Jones, director of Moon and Source Code?

Duncan very kindly agreed to stay up to 2am LA time to Skype through to Line by Line at 7pm Melbourne time. In addition, on that very day Melbourne decided to have a tropical electrical storm! Thus it took everyone over an hour to get to our beloved Long Play Bar (http://www.longplay.net.au/) and keep Duncan up even later. Despite the hour, Duncan was extremely chatty and very generous with his knowledge and experience.

Duncan spoke very freely and candidly about all aspects of filmmaking, video games and the studio "development" system in the States ("They find a spec script which they all get very excited about and they think is worth turning into a movie. They develop it, and it's kind of like kneading bread dough for too long. They work on it and they work on it and they work on it and all of a sudden it's something completely different").

However, as always the case with Line by Line, this blog is focusing on assisting aspiring screenwriters, directors and producers get their stories off the ground and so I will focus on how Duncan's experiences can fulfill on that.

No right way to write

It was wonderfully reassuring to hear Duncan's seemingly unique writing method - especially how it differed from most books and gurus "how to" approach.

Apart from lists and notes with ideas, his only short document prior to embarking on a full draft is a 20 - 25 page treatment. He works very hard on this treatment - making sure that it determines pacing, structure, plot and tone of the film - and uses it to get feedback from a trusted few before embarking on Draft Zero. For a scifi story, this treatment document also contains a detailed explanation of the available technology and how this technology influences the world the characters inhabit.

From this treatment, it is Draft Zero time. He calls it Draft Zero because, when writing it, he keeps to the treatment even when he identifies problems or things he would like to change. Takes note of them but keeps on writing. Sticking to the treatment. Pinch you nose tightly and type one-handed. Only on the next draft can changes be made. It is that next draft that becomes Draft 1, one that fully expresses his initial concept in a way he is (at the time) satisfied with. It is only at this point that he puts it out for feedback and notes from a trusted few.

In addition, while talking about the shooting of Moon and Source Code, his strengths as a director and their influences on his storytelling became very apparent. His rehearsals with Sam Rockwell for Moon resulted in significant additions to the script and many moments in Source Code were found on set with interactions with Jake Gyllenhaal and the other actors. While many screenwriters may quake in their boots to hear about their babies being in the hands of directors, I found Duncan's flexibility and willingness to be instinctive very refreshing.

Feedback and mulling time

Duncan also had some valuable insights into feedback. He only takes notes at the treatment and then past the Draft 1 stage. But during the Draft Zero writing process, he still sends out pages to his trusted producer. Not for feedback but for support. I have often wanted this from a producer: a cheerleader not a critic. There is a time for constructive criticism but at some stages of writing it could stifle the process. So don't be scared to demand a cheerleader!

Also, there are times in the creative development process where you hit a stumbling block. Where you need to come up with the solution to a writing problem or need to find the best scene or plot device to express you action and characters. At these points, Duncan takes some "mulling time". His producer knows that he may be playing video games all week but this time is necessary "mulling time" that has to be taken to find the right way forward. So, I can now rest easy in the knowledge that Arkham City will be a script development tool!

The quotable: "Write Smart"

But here is the main lesson that Duncan wanted to leave us aspiring filmmakers with: turn your limitations into strengths. He confessed to a Germanic addiction to lists. His list for Moon was a series of limitations that became strengths:

  • Film has to star Sam Rockwell;
  • Small cast (which ended up being just Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey's voice);
  • Film has to be shot in a studio (to avoid British weather, and became just the one incredible location);
  • Film has to be science fiction (as most films coming out of UK were period dramas or cockney gangster);
  • Film has to look like it is not a low budget, independent UK film; etc.

It was these limitations that lead to the incredible story of Sam Bell alone on the Moon. As Duncan said, the multiple Sam storyline not only provided Sam Rockwell with an amazing role as an actor but also provided high production values with a series of "cheap" or "free" special effects. Shoot over a stand-in's shoulder. Shoot a fixed camera split screen. These are in-camera, free effects that made the film feel so much bigger in scope than comparable films for a similar budget.

Duncan pointed out to us that he wasn't alone in this and we should follow in the footsteps of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste or Gareth Edward's Monsters and use our low budget limitations to our advantage. These films are getting made and providing filmmakers with their tickets to bigger and better things. Cameras and filmmaking technology are getting cheaper. For Aussie filmmakers (with our often restrictive industry) there are so few barriers to just getting out there and making our first film... if we write smart!

Set benchmarks

Another lesson I found invaluable is Duncan's decision to set benchmarks or goals for himself in his work. For his short film Whistle (which is included in the Moon DVD), he wrote a list of elements that the film had to contain in order to demonstrate his ability to direct features. His short had to be shot on location, in a studio, feature an actor of a certain calibre, etc.

This highlighted to me that I am currently making shorts to tell the story and hope they get me noticed. I am not considering what it would take to get a short noticed first. I have now decided to not make at short until I have the resources and elements in place so that film can then be evidence of my ability to make features. Thus my next project can truly be a stepping stone in my career. Anything less and is it really worth me making? I am not advocating that people should not make films unless they can make their dream projects. Our craft has to be practised. But I can see very clearly how my filmmaking projects have been made to satisfy my storytelling desire, not to further my career.

An unexpected question - "Who's got one of these?"

Duncan and I had been chatting for a few months about presenting at Line by Line, so - trying to avoid displaying my geeky nerves - I asked if he wanted to launch into it. He replied "Nah. I don't have any spiel prepared. I'm just here for a chat mate." Awkward pause. Silently praise the Lord that I had actually prepared some questions. But it was Duncan who filled the awkward pause by asking us how Line by Line worked.

So I told him. He responded by waving the first draft of his third feature film in the air (sadly our cameras were not good enough to pick up a title!) and said that it had taken him 4 months too. That we had all been working in tandem. And then he asked an unexpected question: "So [brandishing his first draft] do you all have your screenplays to waggle about?" And four of us put up our hands.

I had to fight my initial disappoint that out of 30 participants we only had 4 scripts to draft form. Khrob, Marie, Fiona and I had set up this group with a view to being the difference between writers procrastinating and finding their potential. I felt that we had not achieved this. So, while writing this blog, I emailed the group asking them what they got from participating in Line by Line. Every participant who responded stated that they had written more during Line by Line than before, that they had been constantly inspired to write and that what they were writing was far better than would have been written in isolation. To quote some of our participants:

"That [different writers] often contradicted each other was illuminating and oddly reassuring."

"I started setting tasks for myself, thinking of what my strengths and weaknesses were and what I needed to do in order to get there. Since LXL I have now started on two feature ideas, writing vignettes to better my dialogue writing and constantly."

"For me I gained greater understanding generally of story, why and how the audience engage with plot, character and story elements and above all a continuing passion to push onward and upward in the industry."

"It was also nice to be around other writers, seeing that other people were writing during their day jobs, that writing's no sacred activity performed by Buddhist monks in the mountains but by people who have to wake up at five each morning and pretend they don't want to slap their boss in the face every time they see them."

"Best thing about LBL is that it encourages people to write. Regardless of what they write, it's a good thing."

So, all in all, Line by Line inspired its participants to write more, harder and better. This prompts a question: Why not collaborate? It was in fact a Duncan Jones quote that instigated this whole idea in the first place:

Gather a group of like-minded people around you, find people who want to be producers, cinematographers, actors and composers, because you're always going to have far more ability to get things made if you have the momentum of a group of people working together. It's hard work trying to do it on your own, and you'll be taken more seriously if there's a group of you.


And good luck!

Chas Fisher

The Line by Line Team
Khrob Edmonds
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun

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