More Press for American Breakdown

In the midst of our Kickstarter campaign for American Breakdown, more articles and press are making their way onto the Interwebs.

Asheville’s influential blog, Ashvegas, has a nice little press release here, and Mentorless.com asked me to write about my tips for no-budget filmmaking. You can find that article here.

And as always, please take a look at the Kickstarter for American Breakdown, and if you can, contribute!

Kickstanding — I mean, Kickstarting

We’re live on Kickstarter! We’ve raised a little money. Not that much, but a little! Go here to check out American Breakdown on Kickstarter. And remember, in the world of finance, nothing matters but cold hard cash. Please support indie film!

American Breakdown on Kickstarter.

Your Ass Is Grass

Right. I’m extremely proud to announce that my production company, Harrow Beauty Motion Pictures, has teamed up with Jaime Byrd and Adam Cohen, of Blind Lyle Films, to mount my third full length feature film, Your Ass Is Grass.

We’ll keep you updated as things develop. Casting, location scouting and (gulp!) funding are now furiously underway.

It’s coming. Or, rather, I should say … she’s coming.

My Favorite Reads, #1

It’s become a recent meme to ask writers, filmmakers, artistic types, etc., their favorite books, movies, records, and so on. I’ve even had a few requests for some of my own. So in response, here’s the first installment of My Favorite Reads.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Called ‘literature for fantasy geeks,’ The Magicians attempts to fill that odd niche between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Dungeons and Dragons. It almost succeeds. Concerning a young man in modern NYC who’s chosen to attend a secret school for magicians, it’s as much about the pain of growing up as it is about learning to cast spells. It also illuminates how the real world is just as fraught with mystery and danger as the magical one in which we hope to escape.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Which literate Southerner has not read — and come to terms with — Flannery? Funnier than Faulkner, darker than Welty, a spiritual ancestor to artists as diverse as David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen and every so-called ‘Southern Writer’ since, O’Connor is the queen when it comes to unsentimental, semi-grotesque small town clarity. Though she writes about the 1950’s provincial South, somehow she’s still relevant, perhaps because she always saw things not as they seem to be, but as they are.

Elric of Melnibone, by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock has been called the best post-war British fantasist, and this is his response to what he saw as Tolkien’s too-chaste good guys and too-swarthy bad guys. Moorcock’s Elric is a weary servant of Chaos, a self-deposed Emperor of a sick and depraved kingdom who wreaks havoc on his and his loved ones’ lives. Inventive, twisted and tragic, the Elric books are full of sixties psychedelia and the single coolest artifact in all of fantasy literature, the malevolent black sword Stormbringer.

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. Winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1985, this novel details a strange old forest outside Herefordshire, England which is a lot larger and a lot more mysterious than it seems. Once a person is able to ‘get inside’ the wood, the rules of physics change, and history (both real and mythical) is a lot closer than you realize. Told in simple, elemental language, the true strangeness of the story is only gradually revealed, and the ending is perhaps one of my favorite codas of all time. Where’s the movie?

This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. A memoir of growing up under a sociopath in rural Washington, Wolff’s writing is so elegant and so simple that practically any tale composed in this manner would have been riveting. As it is, Wolff’s story of a boy’s coming of age under great hardship is so well-written that when I finished it and moved on to another book, it felt like a car leaving a well-tended interstate and suddenly careening off onto a rutted dirt road. Amazing and beautiful.

Rotters, by Daniel Kraus. Looking for a good young adult novel mainly just to see what the genre is like, I stumbled across this odd tale and couldn’t put it down. I’m surprised that’s it’s even considered YA, because it’s so dark it rivals pretty much anything I’ve ever read by Stephen King. Utterly unpredictable, and depicting a fascinating and richly-imagined subculture of morbid grave robbers, the book is a horror story told by a child. You won’t forget the images the book forces upon you. Even when you try.

How I Write

In honor of John August’s recent post ‘My Daily Writing Routine,’ I thought I would supply my own writing regimen.

A long time ago, I realized that getting into a specific routine with writing was probably a bad idea. First of all, I didn’t know if I could support myself solely from my writing, and thus create an everyday pattern (I was correct in that assumption). Second, I knew that any habit would eventually have to be broken. Habits are like addictions — crutches that you use to get stuff done. I didn’t want a crutch, I wanted empowerment. So I trained myself to be able to write any way, anywhere, at any time of day, providing I wasn’t tired or sick or something. That ability has served me well in the years.

So I don’t have a certain time of day that I write. I don’t have a certain place. I don’t even write in my home office. That’s for reading the news, emails, day job film work (like editing video) or even playing music (I record directly into my Mac Pro).

Lately, I like to write seated in a comfy chair in my living room, with my Macbook Pro in my lap. It’s a big room with a high ceiling. I like high ceilings. Somehow they make my imagination soar. Years ago, I read a book by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard called The Poetics of Space, which was an exploration of the phenomenology and perception of certain types of architecture. Bachelard made a point of discussing high ceilings and attics and rafters as a means of exploring flights of fancy, and I understand why. Looking up at exposed rafters while I daydream does seem to help engage the imagination.

On the other hand, when I started writing in earnest after college, I would go to a makeshift office in a basement storage area of my rented house — a small cubicle that had no headroom (or even room) at all. And it was fine. I was very productive there. The lesson for me is that you don’t need a certain space to write — you need your writing tools and your imagination … and that’s it. Sometimes a nice room with a window can actually be detrimental — you may spend too much time looking out, rather than looking in.

I write in Final Draft, V8, on a laptop. I use a Mac Pro with Final Cut Pro to edit movies and videos. I use Express Logic to record music (on which I play my 1998 Gibson J45, my 1989 Fender Telecaster, my 2000 Fender P-Bass, my M-Audio midi controller and my Kellii Ukulele).

I don’t usually go for a page count every day. In the early parts of a draft, there’s usually as much thinking as writing. Too much writing too early can in fact be detrimental. It’s akin to driving without knowing where you’re going, and then having to backtrack for hours — or in fact, days and even months. I do outline, or at least know where I’m headed. While I admire those writers who can literally make it up as they go along, I am not one of them; I can’t conceive of a proper beginning without knowing my ending.

Sometimes my various drafts can take years before I pronounce a script done. While I write all the time, I am a slow writer; I like to let the ingredients ferment, so to speak, and grow into themselves, like good wine, or food left overnight in the fridge. If it’s too fresh, it usually doesn’t feel finished to me. Sometimes this rule is broken: Alison, for instance, was literally made up as we went along. There was no time for fermenting; it was an exercise in which I challenged myself to collaborate and feel my way along. It seemed to work, but that’s not my usual process. I like to let the ideas become themselves so thoroughly that they won’t work any other way.

Sometimes I collaborate. For The Mourning Portrait, I worked with Patrick Greene. For an upcoming project called Old Exit One (a contemporary dark fantasy) I worked with a Chapel Hill, NC writer named Brent Winter, perhaps my oldest friend. In both cases I enjoyed it, and the other scribe brought something excellent to the table which I was completely unable to provide. I learned a lot from each of them, and will undoubtedly collaborate again in the future. But I do admit that I find writing by myself a little easier. For starters, you don’t need permission to change a word. Also, the communication factor — the back and forth — can be it’s own time-drain, as well. Like anything else, sometimes it’s just easier for you to do it yourself. And I find you can sometimes go deeper into your own unique vision — highlight obscure elements that you may not be able to when you’re justifying ideas to another person. You can bring out the work’s inner madness, which I think is necessary to making a good script. A good collaboration can also do that, but the visions you conjure are rarely (for better or for worse) your own.

All in all, I try not to have too much of a regimen, other than writing as much as I can. I might go a week without writing, or write every day for a month. But as long as I’m chugging out roughly one script a year, I’m happy.

What Is Better Than How

As a writer with several projects in active rotation, I learned long ago that ‘How’ matters much less than ‘What.’

The how is cool — we all like it when the style of a project (whether that be the way people dialogue, or a cool approach to screen direction or script narration) is well put together. But the ‘what’ of a story — the scene weave substance (AKA – this happens, then this happens, then this happens) — is always the boss. In fact, a beautiful script filled with wonderful turns of phrase is junk if the ‘what’ is weak.

The reality is that there are two kinds of scripts: those who are meant to impress readers, get an agent, get financing, etc., and those by established writers who don’t have to worry about ‘style’ on the page. The Coen Bros, for instance, aren’t worried about how the script reads — they know they’ll be okay because the script is already in, so to speak. Mortals like myself, however, have to constantly impress to raise financing, get an agent, get a project off the ground. So we pay attention to style. Maybe too much attention.

It’s pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many of us fall into this trap. I’ve spent lots of time making sure my scripts flow well — that the events in them are pleasing, almost poetic in their revelations and developments of themes. Also, that that they flow off the page in a well-turned phrase, or are free of typos, or have a pleasing look. And in trying to impress readers, it’s way too easy to put the cart before the horse.

Many times the ‘what’ — the true content of a story — is overlooked or even treated as secondary. But a quick glance at various scripts of great movies will often reveal typos, clumsy turns of phrase, and incomplete or poor formatting. The ‘what’ — the meat of the story, the scene weave — however, is usually dynamite (usually).

It’s a bit akin to a great cinematographer working hard to make a shot the most beautiful he can … but the contents of his shot is less than impressive. There are so many good-looking but vacuous indie films out there, films in which all of the work went into the presentation and not enough went into the content. They pass by like postcards, in and out in a moment with nothing left behind.

The same is true of writing on the page — sometimes, so much energy is spent making a sentence pretty, but not enough time is spent on what the sentence is about — the content of the thought

But next time when you sit down to write, make sure the What is first and foremost as good as you can make it. Then worry about the How.

Juggling Projects

It happens: Sometimes our various projects pile up on one another, and we have to adapt and find new ways of working to handle the new load or risk creatively stalling. For me, I’ve had to learn to pick up my pace a bit if I want to get all of my writing and filming (among other things) done. I was apprehensive about this at first, but I’ve found it’s not so hard to juggle various creative projects at one time — if you’re organized, motivated and ‘in the flow,’ as the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi puts it.

Flow, of course, is the state of of creative focus that happens mid-point between boredom and anxiety — as Wikipedia defines it, flow is ‘completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

Now, I’ve written previously about some rewrites happening on The Mourning Portrait, while Your Ass Is Grass is still pulling at my coattails, asking to be given its proper due. But all of this is to ensure that if I don’t get as focused as possible with my scheduling and conceptualizing, things will be getting done at a slower rate than I had hoped. Nothing will flow.

This is not a new problem, of course. I spoke recently to the science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, and he mentioned that he writes fiction in the morning and non-fiction in the afternoon, which seems like a good way to go: it keeps you from mixing two styles of narrative, say, or from allowing one project to bleed into another.

In my case, the projects are both narrative screenplays, so the challenge is to wipe my hard-drive brain clean of one before settling into another that same day. Can it be done? I think it can. The tough part is to compartmentalize the projects and let them be themselves, without any cross-pollination.

But on the other hand, some cross-pollination may not be a bad thing. On The Mourning Portrait, the team and I had worked out a certain way of going forward that allowed for maximum clarity of purpose and intent. I liked it so much I’m using that same method on Your Ass Is Grass. So maybe it is okay to mix the projects a bit — but only a bit. It really is like juggling — one project is in one stage of development, while others are in a more nascent place.

At any rate, there comes a time when a leisurely writing pace is just not what’s needed — sometimes you have to step it up a bit and get ‘r done. Having a flexibility of creative methods helps in these bottleneck moments; in other words, it helps to have ‘speed’ as well as ‘quality’ in your toolbox.

Acting!

So, I recently got asked to teach several acting classes up in NYC, by the good folks at One on One NYC.  I said yes. Seems they like to bring in various well-known and-or veteran filmmakers and casting types to talk about the craft of acting.  Darren Aronofsky did it.  So did Brad Anderson, Frank Whaley, and lots of other cool people.

Both of my classes are on Thursday, March 3, in Chelsea. It’ll be fun. See you there.

Your Ass is Grass, Update 2

Well, time heals all wounds.  It also helps tear down creative walls.

Indeed, the roadblocks have cleared and as expected, the time off from my next script YAIG was well spent.  A major plot point recently suggested itself, and now there’s a clearer vision, a better approach, a fresher perspective ahead.  Without getting too specific (you gotta watch the movie to find out what happens, man), I was able to get inside the main character’s point of view in a stronger way, one that will make the final version much more compelling.  Quirkier and more eccentric, too, which of course is really one of the strengths of indie film. The new approach will up the budget quite a bit, definitely out of the range of the micro- to low budget I was hoping for. Now it’ll be in the mid-six figure range, if not more.

But that’s okay.  The creative drive wins out every time, and if the story wants to be a bit more expensive, then so be it.  It is what it is.