Tuesday, July 10, 2007

do you see anything on my head?

the answer is no. know why? because my hat is off to jesus beltran, writer-director of the grass grows green.

hearing about a successful* filmmaker with a background in engineering is even more exciting than hearing about one from ohio. a lot more exciting, really. none of us choose where we’re born, but engineering to film is a strange path. so i like knowing that mike judge did a little cube time before getting into animation, or that primer’s working-in-the-garage scenes felt right because director shane carruth has been there.

still, is anyone truly surprised to hear that the creator of beavis & butthead was an engineer? in some ways it would be surprising if he wasn’t.

but there’s not a hint of the geek world in jesus beltran’s the grass grows green, a simple, elegant, character-driven short. the film (available on iTunes) does the seemingly impossible, taking on the most political of subjects without falling into any of the usual “political film” traps.

catch a great interview with beltran on the new blog PrizeWriter.

* successful, adj. having finished a film of any length that i personally liked.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


twenty-nine days and 20,025 words after the starting pistol, the script frenzy site attached a “winner” banner to my profile. i was beat--there had been some serious catching up in that last week--but i had a completely new script.

it took me a couple of days to even look at what i’d written--20,000 words is one thing, but how many would be worth keeping? but now i’ve moved my new script over to sophocles, which makes it a “real” script in my workflow. (i wrote the june script in scrivener--script frenzy just felt like more of a mac thing than a windows thing. go figure.) i’ve been through the new script a few times, had a week to process the frenzy, and am editing like mad.

so what did i learn?

regular writing rocks the free world. yeah, this should go without saying. if you wanna be a writer, you gotta write. but before the frenzy i had never tried the word-count trick. and i loved it. before june was even over i was working out ways to add doable but aggressive freewriting to my regular schedule, eventually settling on a goal of 500 new words every other day. (20K in thirty days works out to 667 words a day, which can get painful if you let a few days' quotas stack up.)

you can write some decent stuff under the gun. my june script was flabby--what do you expect when you’re rewarding word count--but as i’m editing it down, i’ve only gone back to my pre-june script twice for content i missed in the new version. i’m rewriting a lot in this pass, but this script is so much closer to what i mean than any previous attempts.

there is no one screenwriting tool that does it all. june really solidified my attachment to the two writing tools i use. i still think of sophocles as my “real” screenwriting program. moving my 20K to sophocles this week and formating it there made it an official script in my mind. meanwhile, scrivener has become my freewriting tool of choice. all of my notes are there, and i’m using it for my 500-word assignments. somehow even the process of booting into windows to port things from one tool to the other feels right--a change of environment for a different type of writing. now if i could only stop typing apple-C in windows and ctrl-C on the mac side...

i kind of like my characters and their world. and thank goodness. they're going to be with me for a while. more on this in future posts, i'm sure.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

breathing life into green

it’s every director/producer’s worst nightmare: you and your dp are packing a few things up after the last day of a rough shoot. the cast and crew have already gone home, and you’re making sure the pile of equipment you’re returning to the rental house tomorrow isn’t mixed in with her pile. she’s packing her very cool eclair 16mm camera into its case, dusting everything off as she goes. you’re looking around for your slate (which belongs in neither pile of equipment) when you realize there’s been a long pause between bursts of canned air. you look up just as the dp says

uh oh.

she thinks the magazine may not have been in right. for the whole shoot.

a quick explanation of what this means: the magazine is the part of the camera that holds the film. magazines are designed to fit right up against the gate, where each frame is exposed, and if a magazine is not in right, you could have a few problems: the film could get all jammed up and ruined (we were in the clear on this one), the film could be completely exposed (nothing but white frames) from light coming in through the edges where the magazine should attach, or the film could just be wildly out of focus.

welcome to the first minutes of postproduction on my first 16mm short, green.

i had wanted to shoot something in 16, to have a film that projects well to a large screen, and to get a feel for working with real film, the delicate, moody substance that it is. i was certainly getting a crash course in the latter.

fast forward a month, allowing for processing the film without transferring it to video, skipping out to ny for a friends’ wedding, checking every reel on the negative with a lightbox and loupe and seeing that we do have images (much celebration), finding a local post house that will do film-to-tape transfer for only 800 feet, and scheduling time at an edit suite to transfer the images from tape to a hard drive. finally it’s time to see these hard-won images, and…

uh oh.

two of the eight reels are completely out of focus. and these aren’t the relatively easy indoor shots, either. they’re also (mercifully) not the reels with our rottweiler footage. so it could be worse. but we are now missing a fourth of the footage from a precisely storyboarded project, including the first and last shots of the second sequence, and a key scene that wraps up the plot of the film.

if being missing a quarter of the film wasn’t enough, a lot of the good reels have smaller, but still noticeable, focus issues. i don't think you could show this on a big screen.

after a couple days’ despair, i think of a way to rearrange everything to create a variation on the same story with the footage we do have. and the focus issues with the good reels aren’t so noticeable on a computer screen. if i can accept the straight-to-the-net release (kind of a shame for a 16mm project), it just might work.

then i try to cut the footage together. i get real demoralized. i can’t stop seeing how this film should have worked with the missing shots. i even try using the crazy blurry shots, but of course they don’t cut together with the in-focus stuff.

fast forward ten months, allowing for a cast & crew dinner where i have to tell everyone about the footage, a few more attempts to rally and just cut the damn thing together, some good ideas springing up along the way, but most quashed by loads of demoralization. i can’t get past the missing pieces, and i seriously think about abandoning the project. but i really don’t want to be a quitter (funny how much i care about that). slowly, painfully, i cut the images together, using a brian eno temp track (who doesn’t?) and some foley pulled together from soundtrack pro’s stock effects.

then, in a burst of excitement about starting work on my next short, fraud, i realized, that i needed to finish green, and pronto. make it as good as it can be, bless it, and send it on its way. time to find the film i have, no matter how different it is from the film i wanted. last week a friend helped me transfer the location sound to my computer, and after a week of sound design and editing, i had something i could show curtis.

now, if you’re thinking, so you had something you could show your boyfriend, that’s easy—well, you don’t know curtis. i have a reputation for being one of the toughest critics among my friends and fellow playwrights/screenwriters, but curtis makes me look positively magnanimous. he's handed scripts back to me, shaking his head, with the words, "it's not your best work." so the curtis test is usually not the nerve-soothing ego boost most people get from showing works in progress to their sweeties.

but curtis agreed, it’s almost a film. i’ve got some tweaks to make, but it’s pretty much a rough cut.

i am so excited about this.