20 March 2010

Microcinema Community, We Have to Talk...

Oh! Microcinema filmmakers! Hi. I didn't expect to see you here. It's good we bumped into each other, though, because...well, I've been meaning to talk to you about something. And it's going to sound harsh, and it's going to hurt, but I really need to just get it off my chest in an upfront and honest way. And it might be good for you. It might be what you need to hear. So I'm not going to sugarcoat this.

This is going to be Real Talk.

Ever since I entered this world of no-budget production, I've been watching your movies, short and long, supporting you every chance I get, going to your showings and fundraisers and special events. I've seen a lot of your work, enough to have a pretty good sense of the community as a whole, I think. And so when I say this, it comes from a place of knowledge, but also love and commitment and affection. I'm only trying to help. Please keep that in mind.

What I want to say is simply this:

Your movies are terrible. Just flat out godawful.

And it's not me. It's you.

Nine times out of ten, the main flaw that makes your movie so painful to watch is that it is unbelievably boring. Many of us position ourselves as the anti-Hollywood. Rightfully so. However, I have to give Hollywood props, because while they make a lot of bad movies, very few of those bad movies are boring. Even the ones you hate know how to put Shot A together with Shot B in front of a peppy soundtrack to glide you along their unimaginative narrative. But most microcinema productions don't even have that basic level of competency. They are too long, repetitive, crawlingly paced, full of uninteresting characters and dialogue, and fucking drrrrraaaaaggggggggg.

Why is this? Because you think your story is much more compelling than it actually is. Because you think a great idea for a five minute short can be easily extended to an hour and a half with little adjustment. Because you think the words that fall out of your actors' mouths are witty bon mots full of life lessons rather than trite, cliched terms spoken with all the charisma and humanity of a tree stump.

Let's talk about your directing.

Everyone working at this level is extremely limited by what they can accomplish. With little money, it's hard to orchestrate car chases, buy a Steadicam, or even get permission to shoot inside of a common diner. But oftentimes, these limitations can inspire creativity. Learning how to film a production around these obstructions frequently leads to inspired angles, innovative set pieces, new ways of viewing the world.

At least, that's how it should work. In actuality, you use it as an excuse. Most of your shots are static medium shots, created with little thought to composition, filled by one character with nothing to bounce against, and flatly lit. Visually, your movie is bland. It is vanilla that cannot even be flavored with After Effects. And when it's not vanilla, it's usually aping some rigidly established aesthetic or ripping off other, better filmmakers. There comes a point where "homage" shades into "stealing" shades into "I HAVE SEEN THIS DONE FIFTEEN MILLION FUCKING TIMES BEFORE."

By the way, just because you are able to complete a shot in one or two takes doesn't mean either of those were any good. Contrary to what the buzz around Clint Eastwood is, sometimes actors - particularly untrained ones, ones without enough time to prepare, ones without adequate direction, or ones without much experience - well, sometimes they need more than one take. Sometimes they need to warm up to it, and then sometimes they need to be told how to adjust their performance. This is not a knock against their ability. It's just how you make a watchable movie. Not even a good movie, just a watchable one.

Some of you are only able to do one or two takes because you're shooting on film, and that's expensive. If you are, then you need to provide for enough rehearsal time, and need to plan your shots better in pre-production. Also, if someone can watch your movie and have no idea whether you shot it on video or film, you should not waste money on film.

Another factor that's an even more important in making your film no fucking good is your screenplay. Folks, I am here to tell you what no one else is willing to, the complete and unvarnished truth: YOU CANNOT WRITE. Oh yes, I know that you think you can write, and that your script is a small masterpiece that tackles the big issues in life, the universe, and everything. But it isn't, and it doesn't. Particularly if it can be described by one or more of the following:
  1. It is the first script you have ever written;
  2. The main character is a writer - doubly so if he is a struggling writer - triply so if he is a struggling screenwriter;
  3. The characters enjoy a healthy social life filled with mindless consumer purchases, yet still complain about how poor they are and have no discernible means of income;
  4. They talk at length about pop culture - doubly so if they complain about the emptiness of mainstream culture in a movie that still unconsciously adheres to its tropes and structures;
  5. The plot can be described as "One person's attempt to come to terms with [blank];"
  6. Any characters or scenes exist only to allow your stand-in (sorry, I mean the main character) to shout out his or her pseudo-intellectual, condescending view of the world.
If this sounds like you, you need to put that screenplay away and write another one. If this does not sound like you, you should still put that screenplay away and write another one. Because we need to write a million words of shit before we produce anything good, and chances are you are not through your million words yet. Do not subject people to a produced version of your first script. Churn your way through your million words. If you cannot, hire someone who has and get them to write your screenplay, or at least give you very honest, very thorough feedback. Remember: Most people will assume a "Story by" credit means you wrote it anyway, so you can still bask in the glory.

There are so many more things I can address, but I think you're getting the picture.

Why do I keep watching your movies? There are many reasons, but the biggest is that I feed on the hate I feel for your work. It's a hate that comes from love and passion. I know how hard it is to create any film, no matter its quality. Coming up with a concept, writing the script, finding the right cast and crew, the long months of waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, the arduous hours of actually shooting the damn thing, the sleepless days and nights of editing, the no-win decision of figuring out which take to use, the agonizing realization that all the shots of one scene are crap and you have no way to reshoot...

Friend, I have been there. And so when I see your terrible movie, it makes me doubly sad. "All of that hard work and dedication and for what? This horrible thing that makes me feel like I'm having my fingernails ripped off with pliers." It just gives me that much more motivation to go out there and create a film The Way It Should Be Done.

I know you think you're not one of these people I'm describing. You think you're one of the ones who can create something truly compelling and interesting on a shoestring budget, the Diamonds in the Rough (they are out there). You recognize what I'm talking about, though, and so you're probably nodding your head in agreement right now, thinking, "Yeah, Justin! Give it to those untalented hacks!"

That only makes it all the more likely that you are, in fact, one of those untalented hacks. We all are, and yes, I include myself. Working at our level, there is no room for ego. We all stand on the precipice of disaster. Even if we are satisfied with our last project, we must always remember: Something Could Go Wrong with the next one, and then it's our turn to be the subject of withering criticism and peer whispering. We must always question, probe, second-guess, distrust our instincts. It's a long process - God, is it a long process - and throughout it all the one question that should be at the front of our minds is "Will this be a waste of the audience's time?"

The people who put in the work, the study, the effort, the thought, are more likely to make a film that maybe not everyone will enjoy, but they'll be able to say "There's something here. It showed me something new. If this movie were a person, I would not want to shove its head through a plate glass window." Of course, there is something positive to be said for getting a bipolar reaction - one half of the audience loves it, one half hates it - but that's a whole other essay. Also, you should make sure that the half that loves it isn't just blowing smoke up your ass. There's no room for that smoke, anyway, not with your head so far up it.

Understand, I am only trying to help, not just you, but myself as well. If we do not take stock of the lessons we have been taught and discuss them as much as we can, we will learn nothing and go nowhere. We are all in this together; we should compete, but in a friendly and supportive way, inspiring each other to greater heights. Low budget filmmaking does not have a great reputation, and for a very good reason. Let's do our best to change that.

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