Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Building a Character In Two Easy Steps

Recently, I found myself paging through the scripts my students wrote, cleaning out folders now that my school year is over.

And I realized that I had shared a fun idea with my kids that I forgot to share here.

So here we go:

My first batch of students wanted to create a sitcom (of sorts) based around a school. It would be, they said, a bunch of zany characters having zany things happen to them.

As a teacher, I kind of loved this idea. It took place in a school (we were in a school!) and used students (we had students, by cracky!) and we could make the format as long or as short as we wanted.

(Eventually, we decided to create very, very short episodes, which I started referring to as webisodes.)

At that point, we started brainstorming episode ideas. Each episode needed a clear, easy-to-state idea that we could hang a five-minute story on.

We all ended up staring at each other for a few minutes.

The problem was, I realized, that we hadn't set many parameters. All we had was "The Office in a School." This is a pretty great idea, and if I could pull it off I'd totally take all my kids to Hollywood and sell the show to The N, and have them write and star in it, because they're all very funny.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The problem was, we had no characters.

A story, for better or worse, doesn't happen to itself. It happens to a person, or to people. (That story definition again: A person fights their way through more and more difficult obstacles until they get to the end of the story, and win.)

We couldn't tell a story, because we had no people in the story.

Since the kids wanted to star in the show (which worked well for us) we used their real first names.

And here's the part that can help you write.

What we did next was give each character two things:

A defining characteristic.

A goal.

In a lot of "how to write" kind of books, they'll tell you to write long back stories on your characters. I don't think that's a terrible idea, but it can take a long time, and at the end you have a bunch of writing that probably won't appear in your story.

But if you give your character a single thing to define them with, it makes them easier to track (oh, that's so-and-so - he's the angry one) and it helps you to answer the question, "What would this character do next?"

Since we had five people who were willing to act, we set them up with basic characteristics:

The Smart One Who Is Angry No One Notices They're Smart

The Dumb, Loyal One

The Girl Who Shoots Guns - and Has Anger Issues

The One That's Forgetful and Easily Freaked

The Girl Who's Mexican - And A Little Oblivious

Now, I won't argue that those are brilliant characters, but it always gave us something to work from.

Over time, some of the characters evolved a bit. The Smart Angry One also developed a bit of confusion about their orientation. Not in real life, but on the show. And we ran with it, referencing it from episode to episode.

The Girl With the Guns evolved from kind of angry into a sort of wise-cracking cruelty.

But these baseline personalities served us well, even into shooting the last episode. At one point, we realized that we had a funny line, but it wasn't something the character would say - it was too mean. So we gave it to the mean character.

At one point, there was even some discussion of taking the "dumb" character and basing an episode around the character admitting it was all an act - she was doing it so people would like her.

It would have been one of the saddest episodes of anything, ever.

Okay, so now we had characters, and we could put them into a situation.

For the pilot, the characters all had a paper due... and only one of them had it finished.

Why did only one of them finish it? Well... let's go back to personality.

The angry girl tore hers up talking about a blind date gone wrong.

The dumb girl was still writing her paper... about an improper topic.

The smart girl finished her paper, and lorded it over other people.

The girl who tends to freak out realized she forgot her paper, and ran out of the room to get it. Eventually, she was hit by a car.

And the Mexican girl's paper got chewed up... by her pet Chihuahua.

Now, I'm not going to argue that any of this is genius. As sitcom tropes go, it's all pretty standard.

But the thing is, it's all standard for a reason. "Modern Family" did an episode a few weeks ago that was, basically, about how watching people fall down is funny.

Which brings me to the second idea I shared with my students: Goals.

In each episode, every character needed a goal. Sometimes, it was the same goal. Sometimes, the goals were different. Sometimes the goals put the characters at odds, and sometimes they all just spun through their own universe.

But, everyone had a goal. And in each scene, they did something in an attempt to further (or discuss) that goal.

And honestly, those two little ideas (defined characters, strong goals) gave all of our episodes a motor to run them.

Again, I won't argue that the motors were brilliant, but I don't know how many motors really are. When you think about something like "Star Wars," what's the goal? Rescue the princess and get some blueprints to the rebels.

It's been done, is what I'm saying.

But as a writing tool, having those two things on hand always kept us on track. If someone said something funny that didn't work for character A, we'd move it to character C.

And if a scene was wandering along, not going anywhere, we'd go back and look at the character goals... and once we had a goal in mind, it made it a lot easier to send the scene in a direction.

In the end, I won't argue that we made brilliant movies worthy of dissection as great art, but our webisodes were never boring, because they were all moving forward, towards something the audience could follow.

In conclusion: Defined characters, strong goals.

And if you know someone at The N looking for the next great show, shoot me an email. I've got a couple of DVDs they should see.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

With Half an Hour to Go

A quick Idol Prediction:

As of yesterday, pre-show, Scotty had it in the bag. He's a better performer and doesn't act like a scared kid half the time.

Then the show started, and there was the whole, "Lauren almost couldn't sing! Here's a doctor!"

And then Scotty's single sucked.

Then Lauren hugged her mom.

I think the Idol people knew that Lauren was going to lose, and they know there's money to be made on her.

My prediction: Lauren takes it tonight.

Scotty has a longer career, as Lauren has no idea what she's doing.

I still think the smart thing to do would be to get them both on tour together.

As a bonus, they need to cast them both in a Disney movie based on the book "Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance." They'll have to Southernize it a bit, but it would easily be the next "High School Musical," if they did it right.

And those are my thoughts - 30 minutes until the truth comes out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fairy Godmother-In-Law: An Excerpt

When you’ve been on as many blind dates as I have, you come to recognize “The Moment.”
What I mean is this:
“The Moment” is that very second, that very instant, that you know when a date is going to end well, or going to end poorly.
I’m not talking about whether or not you’re getting invited up for a drink. I’m not even talking about whether there’s a goodnight kiss or a second date in your future. I’m talking about “The Moment” – that second where you either relax and start to enjoy yourself, or realize that you are in for the kind of night where you try to memorize all the horrible details, so that you can at least get an amusing anecdote out of it.
I wish I could say this was a funny story.
Maybe it’ll be funny to you.
My date with Jennifer was, naturally, set up by my mother. I say this is natural because she’s been “retired” since she was about twenty-five.
It’s an odd story.
I never knew my dad. The way my mom tells it, he was handsome and dashing, and even though he took off the minute he found out that he’d impregnated my mother, she still refers to him as, “My knight in shining armor.”
I finally got one of my aunts to spill the beans about the guy responsible for half my DNA after plying her with several beers at a family reunion. It seems that the guy left mom with some sort of strange trust fund setup, which meant she could quit her job at the local supermarket, deliver me, and live off some variety of compound interest.
(It also left us with enough money that I could see a really great shrink about my issues with my absent father. My doctor said, and I quote, “If he left you with enough money to pay my fees, you don’t really need me. You need a girlfriend and a hobby. In that order.”)
My mom needed a hobby as well.
What I mean is this:
If you’re thirty-seven years old, and you’ve never been married, and your mother doesn’t have a job, you become her hobby.
When I asked my mother what she knew about Jennifer, mom clammed up. Which was different.
Most mothers, when setting their kid up on a date, want to talk the girl up. She’s so smart, or so pretty, or so well-liked, or so talented, or in one memorable case, “So rich she’s worth marrying just to knock her up and get a divorce so you can get partial custody and some rockin’ child support and I can be a grandma and I don’t have to worry about your financial security any more.”
But Jennifer? Nothing. No info. I eventually got my mother to admit that she’d met Jennifer’s mother at her book club, where they’d been reading their way through a popular series involving wizards and witches and their many adventures at school.
(When I pointed out to my mother that the books were supposed to be for kids, she admitted that the club had tried to read “Pride and Prejudice” first, only to discover that everyone had opted to watch the movie instead of slogging through page after page of turgid prose.)
“Do you know anything about Jennifer at all?”
“Well, her mother is very… unique. I thought that if Jennifer was anything like her, perhaps you’d get along.”
“Unique?” I pressed.
“It means,” sighed mom, “that I’ve been setting you up with normal women for years and none of them have worked out, and perhaps if you try eating the fried Oreo instead of getting the same old chocolate cake again, maybe you’ll find you like the new flavor.”
I love my mother, but her metaphors border on lunatic babbling sometimes.
Going on a blind date is not unlike trying to solve a murder mystery before you hit the last page.
What I mean is this:
Everything you discover about your date is a clue about who she is and how the night might go, starting with her place of residence.
When you get to her house or apartment complex, you generally know what kind of neighborhood you’re in, and how much it costs to live there.
Jennifer lived on the fourth floor of a five-floor walkup, in an okay-but-not-great part of town. Which said to me she was probably working a blue-or-pink-collar job and paying all the bills under her own steam.
So I was somewhat surprised, when the front door of her apartment presented me not with a woman in her mid-thirties, but a woman in her mid-sixties.
Her hair was short, and a perfect, uniform white. The kind of white you only see on old people wearing wigs. Her shapeless dress was covered by a bizarre white robe shot through with some sort of metallic piping.
Gold, maybe? Silver? Hard to tell.
Also, she was holding a stick.
I stood there for a moment, as it finally hit me why my mother hadn’t told me anything about Jennifer. She was old enough to be a grandmother.
“Good evening, Jennifer,” I said, when the saliva returned to my mouth.
The woman in the door sized me up.
“I’m not Jennifer.”
“Oh,” I said.
Now, perhaps that looked a lot like “The Moment,” to you, and on paper, I can understand that. But rest assured, that was not it.
Granted, I was in trouble. At this point, I had possibly insulted Jennifer, and possibly insulted her, what? Mother? Grandmother? Aunt? Uncle-becoming-an-aunt (she was a little man-ish in the face)?
I finally decided to plunge right in. “I mean, by, um – by saying ‘Oh,’ I meant, ‘Oh, of course you’re not Jennifer.’”
That was also not the moment.
The next moment was.
What I mean is this:
The woman in the doorway extended her hand. The hand not holding a stick.
“I’m her fairy godmother,” she said.
“Her godmother?” I replied, as I took her hand, and gave it what I hoped was a firm-but-not-too-firm shake.
“Fairy godmother,” she repeated.
Now, I’ve had “The Moment” early on before, but this was kind of a first. I had always at least met my date before I realized that things were just not going to end well.
You can judge me if you want to, but people have gone to war on less substantial grounds than the one that caused me to step through the doorway, rather than fake a sudden urge to vomit while manufacturing a story about how my lunch meat had smelled a little “off” earlier in the day.
When it comes down to it, though, I was lonely, and in my late thirties.
Plus, hey, it looked like it had the makings of a great story, assuming I made it through the entire evening. “And then, before I even got in the door? I met her fairy godmother. She even had a wand. Well, a stick, but you know…”
Jennifer’s fairy godmother turned her back to me for a moment. “Jennifer! Your date’s here!”
I heard a faint “Coming!” from behind a door just outside my line of vision.
The white-haired woman turned to face me again. “Typical princess,” she said. “Always running ‘just a little late,’ don’t you know.”
“I – uh – I don’t mind,” I replied, unsure of what to say. I’d dealt with a few meddling mothers before, including one who took pictures of me with my date before heading off, as though it was prom we were going to, and not a first date at a minor league baseball game. A minor league baseball game where we bought a lot of beer because we were both over the legal age by a decade, and had discovered that we had only one thing in common: we hated her mother.
“You should,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder again. “If you can’t put a princess in her place right off the bat, she’ll walk all over you.”
At a loss for anything else to say, I opened my mouth to ask the fairy godmother if they lived together, when Jennifer stepped out of her bedroom, dressed for – something other than what I had planned for the night.
What I mean is this:
I came to her house in my usual first-date garb. Khaki pants, turtleneck, sport coat, loafers. If you’re a guy, you’ll recognize this as an easy dress-up-dress-down outfit. Good enough to get you into a reasonably upscale eatery, but not out of place at a bar, either.
She was wearing – and I am not exaggerating to make this story more amusing – a ball gown and a tiara.
I think there are probably some girls who could have pulled this off – but Jennifer wasn’t one of them. It’s not that she was unattractive, not really, but she wasn’t hot or gorgeous or stunning, or really any descriptive term that I could think of outside of ordinary.
Her straight brown hair was ordinary. As was her face. As was her figure. As were her other accessories, which consisted of an ordinary purse that didn’t go with her odd ensemble, and some unmemorable jewelry.
That was the moment when I decided to bail out. I breathed in, willing my brain to come up with a reason I couldn’t go out – and found a stick pressing against my nose.
Well, okay, it was kind of up my nose.
Jennifer’s fairy godmother leaned forward, and in a voice I’m sure only I could hear, said:
“If you hurt her, I will turn you into a toad.”
The moment she stopped talking, she took a step back from me, and said, pleasantly, “Sorry about that. The old balance isn’t what it used to be, you know? I’m constantly bumping into things.”
“It’s true,” confirmed Jennifer.
“No harm done,” I said. I turned to Jennifer. “Shall we?”
Jennifer stepped up to the woman in the robe and pecked her on the cheek. “Don’t wait up.”
“Oh, you know me,” she replied. “Won’t be able to sleep a wink until I hear you come clumping into the apartment.”
“I won’t keep her out late,” I said, and Jennifer followed me out the door.
As I let Jennifer into the car, I realized that I had a serious problem. Outside of the threat to turn me into a toad. So, two problems, really.
I had no real place that I could take a woman in a ball gown. The eatery I had chosen was on something of a mid-range scale, much like my clothing for the night. There were better restaurants in town, and I ate out often enough to get preferential treatment at a few of them (provided I tipped everyone well).
But were any of them ball-gown-worthy? No.
I got into the driver’s seat and looked at my date, who smiled and blushed. “Sorry about that. She can be…” she took a moment to select a word, “overprotective.”
“I… ” I began to say, then trailed off. What was there to say about a woman who clearly needed a visit from the nice young men in their clean white coats? “You know what? Let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s worry about where we’re going to eat.”
“I thought you picked a place,” she replied.
“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure if it’s quite up to the task of working with that dress.”
Jennifer looked at me, uncertain. “This old thing?” I was reasonably sure she wasn’t kidding.
“You know what? Why don’t we just go to the place I have a reservation for.”

Find out how the story ends...

On the Kindle

On the nook

At Smashwords

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Film Festivals

Once your movie is made, and you’re happy with it, it’s time to get it out into the world.

Naturally, everyone wants to go to Sundance. Or Cannes. And maybe your movie is amazing, and it will go there.

But… probably not.

Granted, you can enter your movie, and if you really think it’s good enough, I say do it. It’ll cost you money which you might never see again, but at least you tried.

The thing of it is, there are probably five or ten really “important” film festivals in the world. They’re hard to get into.

And if you do it, then, awesome! And if you don’t, well, even if you got in, the chances of someone important seeing your movie and buying it and putting it out were always kind of small.

But film festivals, in general, can be a good thing. You can get a few awards, and sometimes that gets you into bigger festivals.

And more importantly, your movie will get seen. And that’s why you made it, right?


So here’s what you want to do:

First, find a film festival (or two or three) that’s near where you live. Why? To see it with a paying audience. So your cast and crew can see it on a screen, and invite their friends and family to see it with them.

It’s fun, man! Remember when you wanted to make a movie? Remember when you just wanted to have fun and make something cool?

So yeah. Someplace nearby.

After that, go here:

Register. Find film festivals that interest you. And please, read the rules. If you live in New York, and the film festival is for people with New Mexico ties, then don’t enter.

Yes, people do stuff like that. All the time.

And after you enter your film in a few festivals…

Well, what comes next is up to you.

If you win some awards, see if you can turn that into distribution.

Or put the film up online, and let people buy DVD copies. You can do that through Amazon.

Or get it up on Netflix.

Or don’t do anything with it. It’s your movie.

And after that comes to next question: Do you want to make another one?

Good luck.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Editing

Before I talk about editing, a questiont:

The Question: If you’re reading these posts, is there something you’d like me to cover that I haven’t? Or is there some detail you’d like covered more in-depth?

As a secondary question, I was thinking about putting all these posts together, expanding them a hair, taking a few old articles I’ve written on the subject of movie-writing and putting them together as an ebook.

Since it’d be pretty short, I’m thinking I’d sell it for 99 cents.

If you’d like that kind of thing, let me know, and I will get it done.


Now we’re into editing. If you know anything about editing, say, twenty years ago, it was all done by hand. Meaning someone had to log the film, then trim it using special razor blade devices, then splice it using a special kind of tape…

That would have driven me insane.

So if you’re reading these posts, and thinking that you’re going to shoot on film, and try to make your first movie look really, really professional, so you can sell it and start your film career…

Don’t do that.

It wastes time and money, and you’d be much better off paying a really good director of photography and having him shoot on HD video. You’ll save money. Lots of money.

And you’ll save conversion time, because if you can find a local place that still cuts film, I’m not sure you want to know those people, as they are clearly not all there, if you get what I’m saying.

Surprisingly, while I’m not a professional director, I am a professional editor, inasmuch as I’ve been paid to do it.

So this is my advice.

1. Get yourself a fast computer. You can use a slow computer, if you want to, but trust me, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling sad while waiting for stuff to happen.

I’m not saying you need the newest and biggest and best. But last year’s computer is going to treat you a lot better than a computer that’s more than five years old.

Do I have a preference, Mac Vs. PC? I use a PC. I’ve used a Mac, and so much of what they do seems counterintuitive to me. Because, and I say this honestly, I love my second mouse button. Love it. Use it all the time. Have no idea how people live without it.

I will say that PCs are cheaper. So if you’re on a budget (Of course you are! You’re reading this online instead of buying a book!) a PC is probably the way to go.

2. Get yourself some decent software. In all honestly, what you need depends on what you’re doing.

I know people who do really snazzy stuff with iMovie, which is free. And honestly, MS Moviemaker looks pretty decent these days, too. So if you’re just making a practice flick, or doing that test film I talked about earlier, try using something that’s on your computer already.

As for the other major software you can get. Yes, you can pick up the real software that the pros use, but it’ll run you a few thousand dollars. Then you’re looking at Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, and Avid software.

However, all three types of software I just listed also come in “Home” versions.

And here’s the only place I’ll make a recommendation that’s entirely personal:

I really like Adobe Premiere Elements.

Why? Well, it’s got what I think of as a training wheels version, where all your scenes are lined up in boxes, you mostly use a very simple drag-and-drop system, and when you try to “cut” something, you have a little scissors to do it with.

Really. It’s a graphic that looks like a pair of scissors.

Whenever I’ve worked on editing jobs, I can figure out about 95% of what I want to do without having to look at the instructions.

And the other 5%, I can find using the fairly decent search function.

Now, I will say, I’ve recently started using version 9 of Elements, and I like it less than the version I was using before. A few things have been moved, the help files aren’t as good, and it’s locked up on me for reasons I don’t understand.

However, I also got a new computer at the same time I updated, so there may be some issue there.

That said, yeah, I’d still go for Elements. The first time I opened up the program, it made sense, was easy to use, and I cut together a silly little trailer for a movie in about an hour.

The first time I tried to use Final Cut, I stumbled around for 45 minutes, and all I accomplished was putting some footage into the program. I couldn’t figure out how to get it on a timeline, how to change the sound and video… Nothing.

And when I showed it to my students, I had the same issues. I handed them a copy of Elements, and got them cutting and moving and editing in about 15 minutes.

I had a special guest come in to give an hour of editing training on Final Cut, and at the end of it, I got mostly blank stares.

The good news is, while Elements used to be a PC-only program, you can now use it on a Mac.

The better news is, if you’ve got a few months to spare, Adobe drops the price of their software constantly. You can generally get elements for about $80, and then get a $20 rebate.

Okay, so enough about software, how do you use it?

That depends…

Personally, I always start with a really basic assembly. Since most of the time, you’re shooting out of order, your footage is kind of all over the place.

In theory, this should be easy. All your footage is a big puzzle, and all you have to do now is put it together. All the pieces are there. It’s just that some pieces look better than others… (That’s pretty much it for that metaphor.)

So start by putting it in the right order. Get the lines of dialogue where they belong. Get the action where it goes.

If you were paying attention to my previous screed in directing, you should have all your shots, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?


So get it all in the right order.

Then, start watching it.

If you’ve got 90 hours of footage, this could take a while. If you’ve got four (Robert Rodriguez said he had 4 hours of footage for his 80 minute “El Mariachi,” and I believe him) it’ll take you, you know… half a day.

Can you start cutting right away? It’s a matter of personal style. With my students, since they’re always rushed, they usually have two takes of a scene that works, and as many as ten of a scene that doesn’t. They shoot a lot of hand-held, rather than cutting back and forth between actors, so that speeds the process.

Generally, if they just choose the last take, their final cut is pretty much ready to go. So there’s no real need to watch each take, again and again, looking for the perfect cut.

But! That’s no always the case. And sometimes, you’ll realize that something needs to be moved around, and often it’s easier to do that when your “film” is in one huge chunk, instead of a bunch of little ones.

So watch it all before you start cutting, if you can.

Keep a copy of the script nearby, and refer to it as you cut. Why? Because just like when you were shooting, it’s easy to cut a line, or miss an important gesture. It’s not a big deal now, but if you cut something, and delete it, you’ll have to go footage-hunting later, and that will irritate you to no end.

But hey, at least it’s not film.

(An aside: If you’re doing a big, multi-day shooting project, try to watch the footage every day. I say this because I almost didn’t once, on a three day project, and then at the last minute I thought I should check the footage. In one shot, nothing was white-balanced, and EVERYTHING was blue. Luckily, we had a day left to reshoot. So we did.)

Once your movie is cut, walk away from it for a couple of days, then go back and rewatch the whole thing away from the computer, if you can. Drop it to DVD, go somewhere else, and see what you think of it.

Take notes.

Then take an axe to it, and pull out all the little bits that don’t need to be there. Cut away. Take out the lines that you don’t need, and the long pauses that seemed meaningful the first time.

Then show it to some people. Talk to them. Take notes.

Then take an axe to it again.

Then show it to some more people.

When you’ve got it to the point that the movie more-or-less works…

Then fix stuff.

Add or replace the music that needs replacing. Don’t use famous music unless you’re rich, or you never want to show the movie to anyone, ever, in a public space.

Fix the sound editing. Add in all the little sounds you think are missing. If you want, get a sound designer. But yeah. Fix it. Just wait until you reach this point to do it, of you’ll end up moving a bunch of sound effects around over, and over, and over again until the movie is done.

And when you’ve done everything you can to make the movie as good as you can… slap on some credits.

Credit everyone who helped. Thank them profusely, if you can. Why? Because you want them around to help you make another movie. Plus, it costs you nothing. It’s just words on a screen, and the people who want to turn off the movie can totally do that.

Just remember, though – if you’re making a short, little or no credits at the beginning. And make your credit crawl quick at the end, so it can be programmed easily at film festivals.

And are you done?

Eh. I’d show it to one more small group before you shove your baby out into the world at large. And if there’s a big problem?

Fix it.

By now, you’re probably pretty sick of your movie, and never want to watch it again. But if something is wrong – and I mean really wrong – you want to fix it now, before you start showing it off to the world and spending money to have people tell you where you screwed up.

And that’s editing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Directing


Okay, here’s the deal. I say this all the time, and here I’m going to say it again.

I’m a writer.

I have been paid to write, in multiple mediums.

When I’ve directed, it’s been on an amateur basis.

So all my advice is either stolen, or things that I’ve worked out while working with high school students.

So let me start with two books:

David Mamet: On Directing Film

Robert Rodriguez: Rebel Without a Crew

Why recommend those two books?

Mamet is, by most accounts, not a great director. But he brings his movies in on time and on-budget, and that’s worth something. Plus, unlike the big-name directors, he usually doesn’t have that much money to spend.

He knows how to get it done.

And the way he gets it done is pretty basic. He figures out what’s supposed to happen in a sequence, he breaks it down into a series of shots, and he gets those shots.

The actors, the sets, whatever else, are all window dressing. As near as I can tell, the man is not looking for great acting (though he hires great actors, so maybe that’s moot) or great sets, or whatever else.

He just wants a place to shoot, so he can get his shots. Then he makes everyone create the shots he needs.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but the book didn’t tell me what that was. So let’s pretend that’s all there is to it.

“Rebel Without a Crew” says pretty much the same thing, by the way, but it emphasizes that you should try to make your movie look awesome.

Mamet, generally, makes movies that could be stage plays, and generates excitement through drama. Rodriguez gets in his emotional licks here and there, but really, he’s an action director who seems to love finding new and entertaining ways to blow stuff up.

As a teacher, this is what I emphasize:

Get your shots.

My favorite editing advice came via a friend who asked Tim Minear (Angel, Firefly) for tips on directing. Tim said (more-or-less) go watch an editor try to put a movie together, and ask them what’s missing that they could really use.

Taking the reverse of that, the question is always: What’s missing?

So, make sure nothing is missing.

Make sure your script is on-set, even if you’re just there with a couple of friends stealing shots for your indie movie. Bring a highlighter. As you get your shots highlight them. Make sure none of your shots are missing.

When you’ve got your shots, you’re done. Not before that.

You might think, “Oh, I probably don’t need this shot.”

Well, if you thought it was important enough to put in the script, then you need to shoot it. Because a week later, when you realize that you just need, like, an insert shot… the weather will be different. Or a table will be missing.

Or, in the case of my students, the classroom they were shooting in got all-new desks.

Or, in the case of another class I was running, we got moved to a totally different building on our shooting day, and one actor-person was there the first half of the day, and a second actor-person was only there the second half.

Did we make it work? Yep. Because you have to. But with all the things that might go wrong, why shoot yourself in the foot?

Bring your script, shoot what’s in the script. Leave only when you’ve got everything.

I hear a voice crying in the wilderness, asking how to deal with actors.

Well, okay. Remember that script you’ve got? You do? Good.

What you do is, you bring a bunch of people in, and you have them read the script, and if they read it a way that you like, you cast that person.

Then you make sure the person is responsible enough to show up on the days and times you need them.

And if you do your casting right, then you shouldn’t need to do a lot of “directing” your actors. Because they already read the script the way you want them to.

I realize this sounds kind of bland, and the truth is, if you’re a big-name director, or making a movie for a big studio, you’ll probably be able to pick and choose a little more.

But in the small-time world, the smartest thing you can do is cast actors who are doing what you want them to do. Then make sure they do it again on set.

And get your shots.

Finally, a couple of thoughts on how to go about choosing your shots.

If you want some terminology, go here:

When it comes time to break down your script, you can do it using storyboards, or you can do it with a shot list.

Use whatever works for you. I had my kids do storyboards, and then we never used them because we had so many issues to juggle.

But we kept the script in front of us, and highlighted things as we got them done…

And we got our shots.

Get your shots.

Will doing any of stuff I’m recommending you do make you a great director? I’m going to say no. But at the end of your time shooting, you’ll have all your shots, and you’ll be able to cut them together into a movie.

And that’s a win.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

More Reviews, and Interviews

New review!

If you are looking for a Zombie novel that is all blood and gore then this book is not for you. If you are looking for a novel that you can not put down; because you have to know what happens next - then this is more your style of book.

Interviews! And a book giveaway!

Here's the interview.

And here's an essay about my name, Mercy, and a giveaway. Actually, it'll be a couple of giveaways, as anyone who comments will get a free copy of my novelette, Baby Teeth.

One More Time With Idol

I kinda thought I was done talking about Idol, but I got a request to chatter about it from a good friend of mine.

I left a few of my thoughts on Facebook, with a promise to expand on them here. So… here we go.

First, I should probably deal with who we’ve lost.

Casey: My newest theory on Casey? I think he got tired of the grind. He knew he would never win, and so he sang an anti-song and got dropped.

Why do I think that?

Here goes: Casey almost got dropped pretty early because it seems no one likes the Casey growl. Casey seemed well aware of that fact, if you look at his next couple of performances.

First, he did a nice Elton John song, sitting on a stool like a sweet little boy doing something cute so you’ll give him cake. He did well in the voting arena.

He followed that up by doing CCR, in a way that would offend pretty much no one. It was sort of dull, but he pulled out the bass to remind people of how much they loved this adorable and quirky dude.

The next week, he did “Nature Boy,” and he whipped out the jazz. He was toeing a line, and watching him, it seemed obvious to me that he knew he was doing it. He had the game worked out, and he knew just how far he could carry it.

Then he whipped out the growl again. He might as well have walked onstage with a live grenade.

I said up-top he was tired of the grind, and that sounds kind of right to me. Or maybe he just knew he wasn’t going to win, and he knew he had his fans, so he pulled the pin and walked.

Or, perhaps the rumors that he and Haley are together are true, and he went, “Eh, I’ll throw my votes towards her,” and exited stage left.

So now, let’s talk bottom four:

Haley: I’m putting her here, and maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I swear she’s trying to get eliminated as well.

I’ll give her some credit. When she picks the right song, she can put on a really terrific performance. But she either doesn’t understand how the game is played, or she’s trying to get cut at this point.

I’m not much of a Jennifer Lopez fan, but she seems to be trying to help Hayley, and Randy’s been pretty straight-up about his feelings as well – Hayley doesn’t seem to have any idea what she’s doing. She picks random songs (A Michael Jackson non-hit? A Lady Gaga song almost no one’s heard?) and then ARGUES with the judges when they try to give her advice.

I’d feel better about what she’s doing if she seemed to have a pattern. But starting back when she sang “Blue” (why?) it’s clear she has no real identity as a performer. Maybe she really is just that random. But it’s doing her no favors, and makes for some agonizing song choices.

So, yeah. I’d say she was going this week, if not for:

Lauren: People seem to really like Lauren, which is sweet and all, but she spent a lot of last night explaining to people that she isn’t, you know, evil. My wife and I have picked up on the fact that she’s sixteen, and doesn’t have a ton of life experience, but…

I think she’s either just TOO eager to please, or kind of dumb.

Some of that might be age. When she’s 26, and has actually lived life a bit, she might take on some emotional depth. But, yeah… no. She’s a little lost puppy-dog child who sings pretty, and that’s nice.

That gets you votes on AI, I guess. But I’d feel better about her if the only time she opened her mouth was to sing.

So we’re up to:

Scotty: Yeah, he’s going to have a career, and a nice one. I still think they should get him and Lauren together, put out a couple of CDs, and put them on tour starting in the fall.

Someone who wants to make money, and a lot of it.

Of all the survivors up to this point, Scotty has grown the most. He’s still doing his all-country, all the time thing, but he’s learned to relate to an audience instead of squatting and holding his microphone oddly.

If he wins, I won’t buy his records. They won’t be my thing. But I won’t be hurt if he wins.

James: I called it WAY WAY WAY back. James is going to take this, because he can sing anything. He has a huge heart as well, and he shows it to the audience, and they eat it up.

When he stops singing, the audience in the studio takes FOREVER to shut up, so the judges can talk.

Yeah. He’s going to take it. And if he doesn’t, he’s still going to sell better than anyone else on Idol this year.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Tech Stuff

I'll be honest - if you're coming to me for tech advice, you're already in trouble.

When it comes to technical stuff, my thoughts are pretty brood, but they relate to how I feel about actors:

Hire good people, and this will take care of itself.

Or do it yourself, and expect to screw up a lot. Sometimes, you can work around your screw-ups. Sometimes, you can't.

If you're going to tackle making a movie yourself, try shooting a short film, or a scene, and then edit it and look at it and see what mistakes you made and then correct them in future projects.

In my case, I had my students shoot the same movie twice, once with a really cheap, off-the-shelf camera, and once with a prosumer camera. They made a ton of mistakes the first time.

And you know what? They learned a ton.

So, yeah. If DIY, then try. On the cheap. In a way that no one can see your mistakes. So you can do better next time.

I spent the better part of four months reading up on equipment, secure in the knowledge that I would have to work as cheaply as possible. It makes sense. I teach a high school class.

But! I think our movies came out looking pretty good, and most importantly, you can hear what everyone is saying.

If you're making an indie movie, that's the most important stuff right there: You should be able to see and hear everyone clearly.

So, if you're going to tackle shooting on your own, here's what worked for me:

Go here and check out their video on the $25 light kit. Also, buy a copy of El Mariachi on DVD or Blu-Ray and watch the 10 Minute Film School on there. 95% of my lighting tricks came from those two videos.

The information you find might seem aggressively simple, but... One of my students used it to light a for-pay industrial video right after taking my class. Trust me, check those out.

One key thing - if you're shooting on video, chances are you need to worry a lot less about your lighting, and more about how your camera reacts to it. Check out your white balance options, and make sure that you're white-balanced for the light you're in.

Next, sound. This video covers most of the things you need to know. (Please be warned, there is some spicy language in it. But it tells you what you need to know.)

My only real thought here is, use a microphone, and make sure it's a good one. My students used a shotgun mic because that's what we had to use. It was great, and 98% of the time only picked up what we were pointing it at.

Imperfect solutions, yes, but we could hear and see everyone. And that's a win, in my book.

And that's everything I know, more or less. Tomorrow: Directing!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Make a Movie: More Screenwriting Thoughts

As I've been writing up my class notes as blog posts, I've been a little uncertain where to insert certain thoughts.

Screenwriting is, after all, a very broad topic, and trying to fit every little idea into one post seems a little haphazard.

Unfortunately, putting them in this second post still seems haphazard. I guess I could create a numbered list, but that just seems so official.

So, here are a few random things I've learned about screenwriting over the last 12 years.

(Yes, that's how long I've been writing screenplays.)

First, make sure that the movie you're writing is going to be interesting.

Most people, when they go to write their first script, forget that there needs to be a story. While I love Tarantino, and people love to debate whether his dialogue is really great, or merely very good, most people take the wrong lesson from his work.

They figure, "Oh, I have interesting conversations. I'll just transcribe those, and that'll be what the characters say, and later there will be scenes with guns. It'll be awesome."

Don't do that.

In every scene, something needs to be happening. Your characters shouldn't just sit down and have a friendly chat. It has to be a chat with a purpose.

It has to further the story. It has to tell the audience something about the character speaking.

So remember how I made you write out that beat sheet? The two or three pages that tells your entire story. Make sure you go back to it, all the time, and follow it.

This brings me to another thought: Don't say, "I'll fix it when I'm making it."

The other day, one of my students asked if, since they had made movies already first semester, if they could just improvise their dialogue second semester.

I told the student no.

When they asked why (sorry for the odd pronouns, but I refuse to tell you anything about my students... I think they're awesome, but who they are is none of your business) I explained that when you show up to shoot a movie, you need to have something to shoot.

A lot of actors like to brag that they improvised their dialogue, or made changes on the set. And that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Except at the end, when you have to cut the movie together, and suddenly the movie doesn't make any sense any more.

Don't get me wrong, there ARE actors who can improvise their words from the first scene to the last, and make it work. They get hired by Christopher Guest. If your actors aren't in his movies, chances are good the stuff they come up with on the day isn't going to be all that funny.

Don't get me wrong, your cast and crew will probably laugh. But when you start editing, and see what you actually shot, you'll realize your story wanders, your scenes go on forever, and you can't cut anything out because everyone talks over each other and you can't cut from shot to shot.

If you want to improvise on the set, go ahead. If you want to make changes to the dialogue on the set, go ahead. But before you decide to wing it, write great dialogue, shoot that dialogue, and then do a few takes where your actors play around.

Just trust me.

While I'm at it:

Don't write your script as a platform for your political beliefs. If you can slip some ideas in while telling a great story, give it a shot. But I promise you, they'll stick out like a sort thumb.

And by the way, don't do this even if you're going to shoot the movie yourself. A boring political screed is just as dull on the screen as it is on the page.

Same goes for your "poor tortured artist" story. Don't write that one either, because the story is, of course, loosely based on your life. No one wants to read it. Trust me. And if you make it yourself, no one will want to watch it.

If you're thinking about making an indie film, don't do a coming of age story. And it would probably be wise to avoid writing a drama of any kind. A good drama is awesome, but a bad drama is just painful to deal with. And even if you have a great scene in there somewhere, chances are no one will remember it, because they'll fall asleep in the first 20 minutes or so.

The two best (not easiest, but best) genres to tackle when writing a script are horror or comedy.


Because both of them can get to the screen mistake-and-weakness filled, and still be considered entertaining.

To my mind the two classic examples here are "Clerks" and "Phantasm."

"Phantasm" looks cheap in a lot of places. The acting is so-so. There are a ton of dream sequences that are freaky, but don't really lead up to anything. And the ending is a gotcha out of nowhere.

But it's given people nightmares for years, and spawned three sequels. Why? It might have been cheap, but it's got a lot of little things that stick with you, and creep you out.

And then there's "Clerks." Made for less than fifty grand. Shot at night, because they could get the place for free. Long takes because Kevin Smith wasn't much of a director. Really long scenes that take a while to get anywhere. Iffy editing.

But the movie is memorable, and launched a career. Why? It's funny, it's quotable, and people remember it.

People let the flaws go because the films are entertaining. Chances are, if Kevin Smith had made a drama, we would never have heard from him again.

This post has gotten long and wandered around a bit, so a couple more thoughts and then I'll call it finished.

If you're writing a movie to make on your own, you need to both think big and ask yourself, "What can I really accomplish?"

If you work at a University, and can get access to a marching band, go for it. Use what you've got to make the biggest movie you can.

But if you live in the middle of a farming community, and the nearest large school is 100 miles away... hold the band. Come up with an awesome scene in a grain silo instead.

If you're writing the movie for Hollywood, on the other hand... think really big. The bigger the better. Don't just write a little drama about two brothers who can't get along. Write a story about two brothers, one that's a pirate, and one that's a ninja.

Give them a dragon for a dad. Think really, really, really, really big.

Make a splash in whatever way you can.

Most importantly, have fun. Because if you didn't have fun writing, people aren't going to have fun reading and shooting.

Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Screenwriting

Hoo boy.

Okay, here's the truth. There are WHOLE BOOKS that tell you how to write a screenplay.

Does it take an entire book? No.

I think what it takes is a screenplay.

The problem is, this doesn't work great in handout/blog format.

What I usually do in class is, I show my students my short film, Meaningful Touches. It's about seven minutes long, and the script is about 7 pages.

They watch the movie, and read the script, and in the end, they know how to write a screenplay. In theory.

In practice, they make mistakes. Which is understandable, because, as I said, there are whole books devoted to the subject. Format errors happen, and they happen all the time.

At a university level, professors will spend a whole semester teaching their students how to write a script.

When I teach, I don't have that kind of time. I have a week. Maybe two. And at the end, my students need to have a working functional screenplay to shoot.

So what I do is, I throw them in the water, hope for the best, and then show them where they're making errors, and when we're done they're writing screenplays almost completely correctly.

But how to teach this online?

Like so:

First, check out this article on the subject of screenwriting style.

Read that article twice, then print it out and keep it on the desk next to you while you write. If you're not sure of something, format-wise, check the article.

Second, read a few screenplays while watching the movies they turned into. You can probably Google the name of your favorite movie and the word screenplay and find one you'd be interested in reading. For that matter, a lot of production houses make their award-nominated scripts available online, for free.

But if you need to find something that sparks your interest, I recommend checking out The Weekly Script. Why them in particular? Lots of scripts, lots of genres, lots of good movie choices.

And most importantly, they seem to be pretty strict about making sure they're using the correct/original formatting. Trust me, this is important.

If I were you, I'd print a script or two out. Just for reference. It'll be much easier to look at it that way, and when you first start writing scripts, you'll do that a lot.

At this point, I usually create a sample script on the blackboard and use it to show my students about 95% of the stuff they'll use when writing. The only problem is, screenplays don't usually show up correctly on blog sites.

Oh, there are ways to make it work, but it's a serious pain, and I could spend a whole day trying to get it right to give you a bad example of what a script should look like.

So read a script or two. And read the article I linked. And then remember this:

Sluglines look like so:


That tells you where you are and what time of day it is.

Action looks like so:

BOB, a fat dude in small pants, picks up his remote.

TED walks into the room, holding a gun. Ted is just as fat as Bob.

(Did you see that? The name is only capped the first time it appears in a screenplay.)

Say adios!

That's dialogue. It should be short and to the point. If you really, really, really (and I mean really) need to explain how dialogue should be said, you use a parenthetical, like you see under Bob's name, but over his line.

And that's most of what you need to know. Now it's all just practice.

For what it's worth, you can get free screenwriting software here: CeltX

That'll make it a LOT easier to do your formatting, trust me.

So practice. Write your script. Then read a script or two (while watching a movie!) and re-read the article I linked, and go over your script and correct all those formatting errors you made.

There will be plenty.

And then you're on your way!

Blood Calling: The FAQ

Q: Hey, what happened to the movie-making posts?

A: They'll resume tomorrow, I promise. I just need to get the word out about my new novelette.

Q: Which would be?

A: Baby Teeth: A Blood Calling Novelette

Q: That's quite the name.

A: Yeah.

Q: Sooo... what's Blood Calling?

A: Blood Calling is my next novel. The plan is to get it out in the summer of 2011. Hopefully early summer, as opposed to later summer.

Q: So why the tie-in novelette? Also, what's a novelette?

A: Well, a novelette is a story that's too long to be a short story, but too short to be a novella or a novel. It's about 12,000 words, in this case.

Q: Why put out the novelette first?

A: There's a long answer to that, but I'll try to sum it up.

I started writing Blood Calling (under another title) sometime last year. I got about 8,000 words in, and stopped, because I had other things that needed taking care of, and also, the book felt slow to me. At the time, I thought the novel would be about 80,000 words.

In my estimation, you shouldn't have to wait 1/10 of a book for interesting stuff to happen.

So I stopped writing. Then I had an idea that sped up the story a bit, and wrote more. Then I stopped, because I had other things going on in my life.

I started an unrelated short story that had a vampire in it, because I had an idea for the saddest vampire story in the world. (Okay, not really, but it's pretty sad. And also disturbing.)

I wrote about half that story and got stuck.

Then I realized that both stories would improve if they had the same kind of vampires in them.

With that in mind, I finished up the novelette... without finishing the novel it was tied to.

I realized, however, that they both stood on their own - two sides of the same coin, really, and with a shared character - so I put the first chapter of Blood Calling at the end of the story, and put it up for sale.

Q: So Blood Calling is about vampires?

A: Oh sure. But a kind of vampire you've probably never seen before. (No, they don't sparkle. It has to do with their purpose.) Also, there are ancient enemies, hand-to-hand combat, and some twists and turns. And emotions. Lots of emotions.

Q: So you've got the novelette, and the novel. Is this going to be a series of some sort?

A: I have plans. We'll see how they play out. The title of the first novel will be Blood Calling, with each subsequent entery being "A Blood Calling _______" (Novel, short story, poem. Whatever.)

Q: What else do I need to know?

A: Not much. If you want to read the start of Baby Teeth, click on the link. You can get the rest of the story on the Kindle or nook, and it includes the first chapter of Blood Calling.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Baby Teeth: A Blood Calling Novelette - An Excerpt

This is the night I’ll finally kill my baby.
I have to. I’ve been alive a long time. A lot longer than I should have been. The baby has something to do with that, I think. My mind has been sharp for decades more than anyone else’s I know. And my body more firm, more flexible. More reliable.
A surprising number of people make it past the century mark. But it’s a smaller number that make it to my age, and still live in their own homes. Alone.
Well. Alone except for the baby.
I’m listening now. The baby is consistent. The sun sets, night falls, and I hear movement in the baby’s room. But it takes a while for the baby to pull itself out of the crib. So I listen for the thump.
The thump, which always is followed by the THUMPTHUMP THUMPTHUMP THUMPTHUMP of the baby coming down the hallway.
The baby will come. The baby will feed. Just like always.
And just like always, I will cry, and rock the baby, and coo to it. Because it is, after all, my baby.
My dead baby.
Things were different when my baby was born. Today, dads stand by their wives, encourage them to breathe, and give them ice chips. At least, that’s what I read.
In my day, we sat in a waiting room. Maybe we smoked, or played cards, or paced, or talked to the other dads. Some of us were nervous, a few were old pros, and there always was a crier.
Why is that, you ask? Roots. I had none.
It became a cliché when movies were introduced, the baby left on the doorstep of the orphanage. But that was my story. In my 90s, I tried to retrieve the papers that might have told me anything of my youth, only to discover that the building that housed them burned down decades ago.
Today, of course, everything is in fireproof safes, copied in triplicate, and often in electronic form so if you want ten or twenty or a hundred copies, you can have them in minutes.
But that’s not how things were at my first turning of the century.
So I lived in an orphanage, and got a job selling papers on the corner, and managed to get through high school even though that wasn’t something people expected back then. And I worked my way through college, too, which was rare.
Got my first job, as an accountant.
There were a lot of pretty girls at the firm. I dated a few, married one. We were happy, until the night she was murdered.
At least, that’s what I spent months trying to prove. But it’s nearly impossible to convince anyone your wife was murdered when you’re behind bars yourself.
I digress. I was talking about the waiting room. And my roots.
Both of my wife’s parents were alive, and they seemed to approve of me. Though our courtship was whirlwind, and our pregnancy quick, no one ever questioned whether we had raced to the altar to cover up an indiscretion, which was as common then as it is now.
The thing is, they weren’t my family, if you get what I mean. Divorce is nothing new – you find rules about it in the Old Testament – and when families break up for whatever reason, the in-laws don’t cry and moan and wail for their lost kid. They move on.
But your blood is your blood. Don’t I know it?
There was no such thing as an intercom system when my wife was wheeled off in the dead of night to bring our baby into the world.
So I sat, and I cried, and I waited. And waited. And waited.
Like I said, it was a different time.
I listened to the hallway as tears slid down my face. I tried to keep from sniffling, just so I could hear the doctor or the nurse or the receptionist or whoever it was going to be as they padded down the hall to tell me that my baby was born.
I never got to hear that. Instead, I heard screaming.
I don’t consider myself a man of action. Growing up, I gave copious thought to how I was going to live my life. The schooling I would get, the job I would take. And while the meeting, marrying, and impregnating of the woman I loved might seem quick to you, in the world where people meet and marry in a week in Vegas, well… that’s all I have to say about that.
But when the screams pierced my eardrums, I stood and ran down the hallway.
I’m still not certain what happened over those next three minutes. Even when I went over the story with my lawyer, again and again and again, he constantly caught me moving events back and forth a few seconds. So I hope the universe will forgive me if my brain tells this story wrong.
The first thing I saw was a nurse, standing outside the doorway, hands clasped over her mouth. She was screaming, though the sound was muffled by her fists. I ran to her, and pushed her to the side so I could see in the doorway.
I’d like to say that I did it gently and kindly. But her cracked elbow said otherwise in court.
Inside the room was my wife, lying on the bed, unconscious, surrounded by pools of deep red. The doctor stood over her for a moment, his back to me. And then he leaned over and sunk his teeth into her neck.
My lawyer and the opposing lawyer both asked me later: Did I see my baby anywhere?
This is another area where events become confused for me. At first, I could have sworn I never saw the baby. Then I remembered I had seen it on the floor, lying in a crimson puddle. Then I remembered that was on its back, off to the side, away from the table. Like someone or something had carelessly tossed it there, as if it was so much trash.
Is any of that true? Of all the people who were there, I am the only one alive to tell the story, and I say it was. Perhaps if my baby could speak, it would tell a different story.
Or perhaps I should say if it could speak well.
I felt my body tense up, as though I had developed lockjaw in every limb. And yet, I pushed one muscle against another and sprang forward. I grabbed the doctor, yanked him off my wife, and flung him to the floor.
If the doctor’s coat had even a patch of white remaining on it, I couldn’t see it. The coat was rose-colored and slick, as was his face. His eyes were human, but with an animal gaze.
He recovered instantly from his fall to the floor, springing up like the men you see in martial arts movies. I may be the only man alive who can’t watch two men Kung Fu fight without wanting to throw up.
I heard a soft gurgle behind me, which I realized later was my wife, trying to talk through the gaping wound in her throat. If she was saying something to me, whether it was “Love you,” or, “Kill him,” I never will know.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a wooden chair, and my still-tense muscles creaked as I grabbed and lifted it.
According to my lawyer, the chair weighed nearly 30 pounds. The weight made no impression on me.
The doctor sprung at me, faster than my eyes could register, but slower than my instincts could deal with. I slammed the chair into him with so much force, he flew across the room into the wall, and the chair shattered like a balsa-wood plane crushed under the heel of an angry ten-year-old.
The wall cracked. The “doctor” kept moving.
Though the chair was in pieces, my hands still gripped the back of it, the splintered ends pointing at the thing that had torn out my wife’s throat.
What happened next isn’t a fluid memory. It’s like a series of pictures. Maybe it all happened so fast, that snapshots were all my brain ever was able to process.
I saw the thing move. I saw my arms move. I saw the “doctor” impaled on the sharp, broken wood. I saw the thing fall. I heard a scream. It was my own.
The doctor fell to the ground. Thrashing, but not screaming. His features shifted, slightly. Became less animal. More human.
My limbs unlocked. I fell to the ground. It was only later that I realized the thing I had killed wasn’t lying flat.
It was on top of my baby, oozing life liquids.
I closed my eyes.
When I woke up, there were policemen all over the hospital. Different stories flying through the air.
Today, of course, they read you that Miranda thing, and then you ask for your lawyer. But as I’ve said, things were different then.
There’s an old saying, that there are three sides to every story: Yours, mine, and the truth.
Things don’t work that way when there is a cadre of eyewitnesses. Based on what they got from the nurse with the broken elbow and the handful of dads-to-be that got to the door behind me, this is what they pieced together:
It seems my wife was having a very normal, uncomplicated labor, which was more than the nurse could say for the rest of the hospital. Of the nine women giving birth that night, six of them were having complications, including a too-early delivery to a breech birth. On top of all those complications, the second doctor on duty and one of the nurses hadn’t shown up for work.
It was later revealed in court that the two of them were having an affair, and had overslept in a cheap hotel when the alarm clock had failed to rouse them. It ruined both of their marriages to other people, but allowed the illicit couple to finally marry each other, something they had always dreamed of.
When they told this story on the witness stand, it was all I could do not to wish them both cancerous tumors.
The nurse returned to the delivery room, where she saw that my wife had, in her words, “hemorrhaged.” Something had gone wrong with the delivery. That was why she screamed.
The rest of the “official” story, the one they tried to make stick in court, went like this:
The baby had been stillborn. My wife had hemorrhaged. The doctor tried to save her. The nurse screamed. I shoved the nurse to the side, raced into the room, and the sight of my dead baby and dying wife drove me right to the brink of madness. So I killed the doctor in a rage.
As for my wife’s torn throat, well, with blood everywhere, it was impossible to tell whose was whose. They figured I did it with some portion of the broken chair.
The hole in her neck was so ragged, I could see how they would miss the teeth marks. Especially if they didn’t want to believe they were there.

You can continue the story by picking up a copy of Baby Teeth: A Blood Calling Novelette:

Kindle version

nook version

At Smashwords

And if you have an iPad, Smart Phone, PC or Mac, you can read the story by downloading on of the following apps:

Kindle Apps

Friday, May 6, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Writing Links and Books

I give this handout to my students when I get into screenplay writing. It's a quick list of books and links I think are worth knowing about, though not always reading about.

You'll see what I mean:

Writing Links

This website is run by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the two guys who wrote all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They have a bunch of articles up about the screenwriting process, all of which are pretty great. They also have a message board, where they (and others) talking movie-writing.

This guy writes a LOT of movies, including a bunch for Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). He also wrote and directed a very trippy movie called The Nines, which he financed himself.

William Martell writes cheap (VERY cheap) action movies for cable and video. He’s not very famous, but he has 19 movie credits to his name.

Writing Books

Screenplay: Syd Field

Written by a guy with almost no actual writing credits to his name, this did not prevent him from being the guy everyone used to read, years ago. His book is terrible, avoid it.

Story: Robert McKee

The “it” guy for writing in Hollywood. I’ve never read his book. His most recent “writing” job was consulting on some animated Barbie movies (really!).

Screenwriting 434: Lew Hunter

In 1998, most of the top ten movies that came out that year were taught by this guy. And he really does know his stuff. I don’t agree with everything he says, but if you follow his methods, you will end up with a pile of paper resembling a screenplay.

Crafty Screenwriting: Alex Epstein

More of a TV writer than a movie writer, but he still knows what he’s talking about. As a bonus, he has a web site and blog, both of which are worth a look:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Baby Teeth: More Options

How to Make a Movie: Story, Part II

'Kay-so, yesterday's post was that a good story needs:

An interesting character who comes up against a series of obstacles until they win.

I should mention that the obstacles should get harder and harder. Maybe that's obvious, but I've seen people forget.

So, let's assume you've got a character, and a general idea of what your story is. Are you ready to write?

I'd say no.

Here's why:

Writing a screenplay takes time. I know people who do it in a week, or two weeks, or a month (and I know one guy who wrote one in a day, which is crazy) but generally, it's going to take some time to write 110 or 120 pages of script.

I tell my students that they need SOME kind of outline. That bit is pretty firm. You might be able to write a movie, start to finish, without one, but you'll probably stumble a lot more often, and cut more stuff, and if you get to the end you'll have to do a lot more editing.

Plus, if you get to the middle, and you don't know what comes next... then you're out of luck. Because it's your story, my friend. If you don't know what comes next, who can bail you out?

So, okay, you need an outline. What kind of outline?

That part, I leave to you.

A lot of folks use note cards. They write down a line or two that describes a scene, and they put it on the floor, and then they add another card, and put it on the floor, and then they keep moving cards around, adding some to fill in gaps, pulling some out, etc.

That works for some people.

Some folks write a synopsis type thing, where they type out the whole story in 10-12 pages. Usually, this is called a treatment, and sometimes Hollywood asks for them. But when you're nobody, they usually just want your script.

As for myself, I generally do some version of a treatment. But what I teach my students is how to make a beat sheet.

Lew Hunter uses the term "Two-Minute Movie" to describe a beat sheet. It is, essentially, every scene in your movie in one or two lines of text. Lew thinks that the write-up shouldn't be more than two pages, because ANYONE will read two pages if you stick it in front of them.

Then they can ask questions, or say it's good, or bad, or offer up suggestions.

Once your beat sheet, or synopsis, or whatever you want to make is done, it's just a matter of writing up what happens in a more complete fashion.

It's like a grocery list, in a sense. You look at what you've written, put it into screenplay format, and once one scene is done, you go on to the next.

And if you get stuck in the middle of the story, or realize halfway through writing your beat sheet that the movie idea is a stupid one, you can abandon it without having done quite so much work.

After this lecture, I give my students a copy of a beat sheet I put together from "Finding Nemo." Why? Because I had to watch the movie two-dozen times with my toddler. So I knew it pretty well. And most of them had seen the movie.

Is it two pages? At normal font type, it edges into three, but I generally shrink it down, because why waste paper? But this should give you a general idea of what one looks like.

Remember to watch for the rising action, the escalating challenges, and the character of Marlin - who goes from being an overprotective parent (which makes sense) to a dude who learns to calm down a little and stop being such a jerk to people:

Finding Nemo

Meet Marlin and his family.

Marlin’s entire family is killed – except for one egg. Nemo.

Marlin takes Nemo to school, demonstrating that he’s a smothering parent.

Nemo leaves with his school. Marlin follows.

Marlin makes Nemo angry because he says Nemo is “not being safe.” Nemo swims away and touches a boat against Marlin’s wishes.

Nemo is taken by the people on the boat.

Marlin pursues to boat, but it gets away from him.

Marlin meets Dory. Dory tries to take Marlin to the boat, but she has a memory problem and can’t remember which way the boat is going.

Marlin and Dory run into the sharks.

Dory and Marlin participate the shark meeting – Dory gets a bloody nose, and the sharks come after them. Marlin also finds and grabs the goggles that belonged to the person who took Nemo.

While trying to escape the sharks, the fish run into a bunch of land mines, and just barely escape with their lives.

Nemo wakes up in a fish tank, and learns to trust his new friends.

Marlin and Dory examine the diver goggles. Marlin can’t read. Dory can. Also, they’re being pursued by a fish with a light on its head. The only way to read the goggles is with the light, but the fish wants to eat them.

They manage to read the address on the goggles and escape the fish.

Nemo joins the brotherhood of the fish tank by swimming through the ring of fire.

Dory and Marlin don’t know where Sydney is. They ask a passing school of fish, but they don’t like Marlin. Dory intervenes, and they get directions.

Dory and Marlin swim through the jellyfish, because Marlin doesn’t trust Dory about not swimming through the trench.

Nemo attempts to clog the tank filter, and nearly gets killed. It looks like there’s no way for him to escape.

Marlin and Dory ride the East Australian current with the turtles. Marlin tells the turtles the story of everything that has happened to far. The story spreads far and wide.

Nemo learns that his dad is coming to get him. He decides to clog the filter.

Marlin and Dory attempt to find Sydney, but have to ask for directions. A whale swallows them.

The dentists decides to clean the tank. Escape is imminent.

The whale drops Dory and Marlin off in Sydney.

Everyone in the tank wakes up and discovers the tank is clean. Nemo gets scooped out.

Marlin and Dory are almost swallowed by one bird, but they fight back, landing on a dock. They are about to be eaten by seagulls, but another pelican, who knows where Nemo is, rescues Dory and Marlin.

Darla comes, and the dentist gets ready to give Nemo to her. Nemo plays dead, assuming he’s going to get flushed down the toilet (all water leads to the ocean). Marlin arrives, just as Nemo is about to be tossed in the trash.

Marlin is thrown out of the dentist’s office.

Nemo is dropped, but he manages to make it down a drain thanks to some help from his tank friends.

Marlin and Dory separate, and Marlin heads home.

Dory and Nemo run into each other in the ocean. At first, Dory doesn’t know who Nemo is. Then she remembers when she sees the word Sydney.

Nemo and Dory attempt to find Marlin. Dory has to threaten a crab with death by seagull to get directions.

Nemo and Dory find Marlin. Dory is immediately captured in a fishing net.

Nemo swims into the fishing net and tells all the fish to swim down. The fish do, the net breaks, and everyone is free! It looks like Nemo might be injured – but he’s all right.

Everyone heads home. (The movie is effectively over.)

Nemo goes back to school, and the movie revisits several of the characters we met along the way (the sharks, the turtles).

All the members of the tank also escape.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to Make a Movie: Story Part 1

Before I get started, I want to dedicate this post to Victorine E. Lieske. Much like the super-awesome Karen McQuestion, she's been sharing a lot of publishing information on her blog, and it's frequently fascinating. Read her stuff.

(Seriously. Here's her write-up on how to create a press release. So useful.)

Okay, story.

Here's the first thing I always ask my students: What makes a good story?

Usually, at this point I have to qualify what I mean a little bit. When I talk about the story in a movie, I'm not talking about, say, a movie that puts together a thoughtful dialogue on the human condition.

I am, for better or worse, talking about a general-audience popular movie, like "Star Wars," or "Toy Story," or "Terminator." They all have philosophical points, yes, but for the most part, they are good stories well-told.

I'm going to semi-steal the idea of good story from a speaker I saw, whose name escapes me. If I remember it, I'll cite it here later.

And to be fair to him (and me) I've modified his definition a touch:

A good story follows a character you find interesting through a series of greater and great obstacles, until your character wins.

Now, if you're writing a story with a sad ending, well, then your character doesn't win. But most of the time, if you want a lot of people to see your movie, your character has to win.

Sometimes, you can make your character both lose and win. Indiana Jones, for example, finds the Ark, but then it's tucked away where no one will ever look at it again.

You should also note that I don't say you have to like the character in question. I can't say that I really "like" any of the characters in "Pulp Fiction," or "Fight Club." But I find them interesting enough to follow them around.

There are other aspects to a good story, as well. If a character can learn something about themselves, or the world at large, that's awesome, especially if it can make the audience think in new ways.

But James Bond has cycled through a lot of movies and learned pretty much nothing. He is just an interesting person who overcomes obstacles.

Okay, so now that we know what a story is (for certain versions of the word story), the next question is, how do you assemble a story?

Here's where I have to get into something that annoys me: The Three-Act Structure.

TAS, as I'm going to call it, because I don't like typing it over and over, is one of those things that just about every screenwriting book emphasizes, because they have to tell you SOMETHING.

It's not really a new idea, as from everything I've read, it goes all the way back to the Greeks. Essentially, it breaks the story down like so:

1st Act: Chase Character Up a Tree

2nd Act: Throw Rocks at Character

3rd Act: Character Knocks Tree Over on Top of Villain

The biggest advocate for this was a guy named Syd Field, who for a long time was THE reference point in Hollywood. (These days I think the book Story, by Robert McKee, has eclipsed it.)

I have no real feelings on McKee, as I haven't read his book. I have read Field's book, and I thought most of the ideas in it were obvious at best and questionable at worst.

If you really want to read a book on screenwriting that talks about three act structure, I prefer Lew Hunter's book, "Screenwriting 434." Why? Lew has actual writing and producing credits, something Field lacks.

The thing is, I don't think that the structure is wrong, per se. But I think it does make people new to writing attempt to conform to a template that doesn't always fit what they're trying to do.

Instead, I tell my students (and anyone else who asks) that as long as their character is always facing a new and difficult challenge, their story will always be interesting and have a clear thread the audience can follow.

You want that.

More in Part II, tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baby Teeth Cover: Take 1

How to Make a Movie: Loglines

This handout deals with loglines.

Here's what a logline is for: At some point, you're going to have to describe the movie you're making (or want to make) to another person.

A logline is your story in one snappy sentence.

The problem is, when most people try to describe a movie or book, they get lost.

Imagine trying to describe your favorite movie to another person. They want to know the premise, and you start off okay (a character, a situation) and then you start wandering around, describing everything that happens in the movie.

If you try to tell people what your movie is about, and you get wandery, it will stop making sense and the person you're talking to will glaze over.

A logline is also a good focus tool, which is why I teach it in my second class. Once you have a premise, if gives you a target to aim for. You can look at it, and say, "This is the story I'm telling."

If you change your mind, you can always change your logline. But if you started off writing a screenplay about how Bob has to save his wife from ninjas, and halfway through the script Bob has taken a job at a fish market, you've lost the thread a bit, and should look at the ninja thing again.

One other thing: A logline is not a poster line. You know what I'm saying? A poster line is one of those things like, "He came, he saw, he conquered." And then in the background there's your star, doing something star-like.

That's not a logline. A logline just lays out your story in one line.

You can do this pretty much any way you choose, but I like to put on training wheels and give my students an easy way to do it.

In this instance, I've taken the logline formats straight from Max Adams. Click her name to see the book that I took it from.

Apparently, the book is getting a new edition this year, which is great because it's ten years old. So watch for that. It's a great book and you should buy it.

And now, logline formats.

Format 1: (Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who must (objective) or else (dire thing that will happen if the protagonist fails).

I always do the Harry Potter series with this one:

The Harry Potter series is a fantasy about Harry Potter, who must stop the evil wizard Voldemort or else Voldemort will take over the world and enslave everyone.

That's really rough, but it works.

If your movie is less plot-driven, try number two:

Format 2: (Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who (inciting incident that creates the situation the story revolves around).

One of my kids used The Hangover, so let's try that:

The Hangover is a comedy about a group of guys who go on a bender and lose their friend, who they must find before tomorrow, when his wedding commences.

Again, that's very rough, and you'll want to play with getting your wording just right. But once you've got it set, you can memorize it, and much more easily answer the question: So, what's your movie ABOUT?

Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Make a Movie: An Overview

Besides writing novels and screenplays (my three indie films have gone to 29 films festivals and won 13 awards), I also teach a couple of classes on Basic Movie-Making.

Much of what I do is in lecture format. However, I do give out a few handouts at the start of the semester.

Recently, I've been catching up with author Karen McQuestion, an extremely kind indie author who has been putting her self-publishing lecture notes up on her blog.

I thought this was VERY cool of her, so I've decided to put a few of my handouts up here.

This is the handout I give out on the first day. If you have questions (or comments) feel free to post them in the comments section, and I'll do my best to answer:

A List of Useful Web Sites and Books

Due to the fact that we’ll be cramming about three year’s worth of movie-making information into one short semester, here are a few places you can go to learn more about the art and science of putting images on film (or tape).

Free Music for Movies:

Both of these sites have free music for use in your films. In the event that you put music in your movies, you are much, much better off getting music that doesn’t have any cost or rights attached to it, especially if you plan on showing the movies at film festivals or trying to sell them.

Free Screenplays:

Much like all other forms of writing, the more screenplays you read, the more you’ll understand the format and how to explain action and write good dialogue.

Free Screenwriting Software: - Works with MS Word

Though there’s nothing wrong with making up your own screenplay format when you’re working on a small scale, the standard screenplay format has been the same for almost 100 years. It’s easy to understand, easy to use, and these programs make it very easy to write in this format.


Rebel Without a Crew – Robert Rodriguez

Rodriguez underwent a month of medical testing to make a $7000 film, which he sold to Columbia Pictures, launching his career. The book also contains his “10 Minute Film School,” which claims to tell you everything you need to know about making movies.

The Unkindest Cut – Joe Queenan

The flip side of Rodriguez’s book. Joe tries to make a film for $7000, ends up spending a LOT more than that, and eventually has to make up his own film festival in order to get it shown anywhere.

Girl Director – Andrea Richards

Though the book is written for teenage girls, pretty much everything in it applies to any young filmmaker.

On Directing Film – David Mamet

Essentially a series of questions and answers about directing written on paper, Mamet talks a classroom through how to direct a scene, one shot at a time.

$30 Film School – Michael W. Dean

Michael W. Dean is a little too obsessed with his Do-It-Yourself ideas, but he still lays out some very basic practical information about making movies.

Fast, Cheap, and Written That Way – John Gaspard

While the book is aimed at writers, it’s well worth a read to learn how people turned very small amounts of money into films that were eventually released.

How Not to Make a Short Film – Roberta Marie Munroe

Favorite chapter title: How to Avoid Kicking Your Producer in the Throat. Details the pitfalls of the short film, from boring stories to bad sound.

I Love Karen McQuestion

Why is that, you say?

Because she's a Wisconsin author.

And she's very, very, very nice.

And she puts up post like this one, where she tells you how to publish your book on Createspace, and what it'll cost you.