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 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!

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.

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.

Your Ass is Grass, Update 1

So, periodically, I’m gonna post a creative diary of sorts on my upcoming project Your Ass Is Grass. This is number one.

Work on the script has been going well, but there’ve been a few hitches here and there, as always. First and foremost, I decided to put the script away for a bit to let it jell in my head a little more. My writing process is pretty clumsy: The first draft is to figure out what my story is going to be; the second and third are simply trying to make those elements even better — to find out what really works, what doesn’t, and to make the elements that do work richer, more ‘themselves,’ so I can truly create an excellent and original piece of work.

That’s a slow process, but for me a necessary one. I’ve never been able to outline and proceed simply with that, due to the fact that most of my creative decisions that stick seem to be the ones made in the heat of composing. Thus, coolly sitting down to outline a story seems to be too easy. There needs to be blood on the page, a heady mixture of plot and character that comes only from the thick of battle.

Second, my script The Mourning Portrait has gone through a few small revisions, so I jumped onto that project for a time and let YAIG sit and jell for just a bit. Which is okay. That’s life. If you’ve read my previous post about the writing process, you know that as long as progress is being made on some front, I’m happy. The key when you switch from project to project is to keep that momentum and don’t falter. Easier said than done, of course.

But the script for YAIG is coming along nicely — in my head. Sometimes it helps not to work too fast, or to try to hurry things. I really do think the extra time is often well spent. One of the bad habits I’m trying to get rid of is to rush things along, and honestly, to write scripts that could have been better if I had taken an extra four months or so to finish. That’s why I’m taking my time and letting themes and ideas simmer before committing them to a final draft.* This is a good one, I’m telling myself; one of the ones I’ll be remembered for. So I’m in no hurry to get it out there.

Thanks for your interest! Keep your butt in the chair!

*This is not to contradict my earlier assertion that work is best done only staring at the page.  There are two kinds of writing, of course:  the actual compositional kind, and the dreamy, staring at the ceiling kind.  Both are essential.