Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing With an Empty Wallet

In either in a behind-the-scenes featurette or in the director's commentary for El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez talks about how he was able to cobble together his first film. There was a time when he didn't have a special effects studio in his garage. There was a time when all he had was the dream of being a filmmaker. And so, to make his dream a reality, he wrote a list of everything he had access to, whether it be film equipment, props, locations, or costumes. He made a list of everything he had free access to. Then he wrote a script that incorporated those things.

The idea being, of course, that if he could save money by using the things he already had, he could spend what little money he had on the things he didn't have but absolutely needed. If memory serves correctly, he spent what little money he had on film stock. It is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius.

So, two years ago, I made my own list. What unique locations do I have access to? What actors do I know? What corners can I cut, making what little money I have go all the further? One blessing of being a filmmaker in the early 21st century is that it costs a little less money to make a movie than it did in the late 20th century. While Rodriguez had to spend money on film stock, we have digital cameras. We don't have to spend money there. We just need a computer we can edit on and thankfully my list includes one Loren Small, and his very nearly complete post production suite he has set up in his apartment. And we're making a web series, so we don't have to worry about incurring any film festival costs.

There's never been a better time to be a filmmaker. Even for the casual filmmaker, cameras are cheap, Internet access is free, and editing software is cheap to buy and easy to use. Anyone can do it. It's just going to be execution that is going to set you apart.

With my list in hand, I wrote my first of Remnants. I found a compelling story rattling around in my brain that focused on normal people facing extraordinary events. I sculpted it to include the interesting locations I had access to. What I made sure I had was a small film but a big idea. I wanted an idea so big that it would distract people from how small our film was. An idea that would pervade every digital frame of our film. It wasn't hard to find my big idea. For my entire life, I've had a reoccurring nightmare. Details within the nightmare will change, but it largely remains the same. And it's a nightmare that I believe every American has, even if it's not one they've ever actually sat down and thought about.

What would happen if America was attacked again? What if the next attack was bigger and deadlier than September 11th? How would America respond? How would Americans respond? What happens to a people steeped in that much fear and tragedy?

It's a big story, but we're starting small. We're starting with suburban America. And each season, we'll zoom out a little bit more. Season 1's scripts are in the can and I've begun outlining Season 2. I think the ideal time frame for our story would be four or five seasons. And with season, we'd see a little bit more of the picture -- start personally and end globally. It's an ambitious plan, that's to be sure. And a plan that demands we make a little bit more with each season. If we don't make any money -- at all -- then the absolute furthest we could take our story is the end of Season 2.

And if Remnats doesn't work, I still have my list and I'm still full of story ideas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I sometimes wonder if Quintin Tarantino has any idea what he's doing. This is his, what, seventh film? And yet, somehow, it still feels like his senior project. It's bumpy, it's uneven, and there's no story for the first hour. It seems by now he should be making incredibly smooth, incredibly sculpted, incredibly satisfying films.

I wish Quintin Tarantino had an instructor or a sensai that he had to submit his scripts to. Someone who could have read Inglorious Basterds and said, "Quintin. The Basterds are the most interesting part of the script. Yet you spend more time setting up the Nazi antagonist than you do with the Basterds for the whole rest of the film!"

Just because he has a way with words doesn't mean he's a good script-writer. He spends the first twenty minutes of the film basically telling us what we already know: Nazis are evil, people want to do good, and in 1941, you did not want to be a Jew in Europe. At this point, is that really necessary? These bullet points of history could have been covered in a riveting five-minute sequence. Of course, that doesn't allow for Tarantino's trademark dialog.

Tarantino's strength is his weakness. He has a wonderful phonetic ear. He hears dialog before he writes it. I can only assume he writes and re-writes scenes so that they have the cadence he wants them to have. His dialog has rhythm, often more like a song than speech. And it's wonderful. It's very nearly beautiful. But the things he takes twenty minutes to talk about, could be shown in a single shot, more often than not.

So, in a movie that is two and a half hours long, why spend twenty minutes in a cabin with none of your main characters, showing us something we already know? Wouldn't those twenty minutes be better spent with the Basterds as they go on their rampage?

The scene where the British soldier is called in before Mike Meyers and Winston Churchill is actually when the story begins. Up until that scene, it's been one hour of introductions. Imagine a Basterds movie that began with that scene. Cut the first hour. Start with the set-up: All the high-ranking Nazi officials are going to be in one room three days from now. Then we cut to Brad Pitt, hand-picking his Basterds. Then we follow them as they make their way to Paris. All while introducing all the key components to the final act. Many of the scenes that take place could have been kept, but would have been used more economically. And who knows? Perhaps by the time people started dying, you might actually care about them.

With the exception of Reservoir Dogs (and perhaps Pulp Fiction), what has always been my problem with Quintin Tarantino is that he is the exception to the rule. No-one else would be allowed to write scripts like his. No-one else would be allowed to indulge themselves as much as he is. Yet film students (myself included) look at him and try to emulate him. Or they refuse to bend to convention because "Quintin Tarantino does this way, I'm going to do it this way!" But it doesn't work for anyone else. It only works for him -- and even then, it only works for him about half the time. But for the rest of us, it doesn't even work that often, which only fills the world with uneven and often boring films -- unless we learn. Unless we change.

Something Quintin Tarantino doesn't seem to be interested in.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


We have no budget for Remnants. And I don't mean that in the Hollywood sense of having "no budget" -- where "no budget" means something made for less than thirty million dollars. Do you have any idea how easy Season 1 of Remnants would be if we had even a thousand dollars? When I say we have no budget, I mean we have no budget. Any money we spend is coming directly out of our own wallets. So the goal of this first season is to spend no money and make some money.

We're still trying to figure out how to monetize this, especially since we want to offer the shows for free. But two early ideas we had was selling the soundtrack as a direct digital download and selling Remnants merchandise. One such piece of Remnants merchandise already exists: The Liberty shirt.

It's a shirt that Annabelle, a member of the secret organization Libertas, will wear early in the show. It features a graphic novel-esque rendering of Lady Liberty (drawn by one Melody George). The hope, obviously, is that people will see her wearing it and go, "hey, I like that. I'd wear that." And then will seek out said shirt. The shirt is now available at Printfection. Other designs (the Remnants logo, the Libertas logo) will come later. We get $2 per sale.

Every little bit helps.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I try to make every movie experience an educational one. What did the writer do well? What did the writer fail to do? Could anything have been done better?

Avatar reminded me tonight that you don't have to have a particularly original story to tell if you have a compelling way to tell it. Avatar doesn't present a story we haven't seen before (it most notably and obviously resembles Dances With Wolves). But by placing it in a setting we've never seen before, and weaving relevant topics into it, James Cameron has produced a very strong movie. It's clean, simple story-telling. Sure, one might be able to predict the outcome of the movie from the very beginning, but fifteen minutes into it, you don't care. It's too fun. It's too thrilling.

There is a part of me that wishes a more original story had been told -- or that somewhat fresher story elements had been brought into the mix. What if Quaritch had backed down, only to have Selfridge step up and become the main antagonist? And likewise, what if Jake Sulley proved himself so unfaithful to the tribe, that Norm Spellman had to step in to unite the tribes? Little moments like those might have helped a "tried and true" story feel a little newer, a little fresher.

Yet there are some nice touches. I liked it that it took some work for Jake to win back Neytiri's trust. She didn't just fall back into his arms after her father died (tragedy is often used to bring to warring parties back together). I liked it that it was Neytiri, not Jake, that finally took down Quaritch. I liked it that spirituality wasn't mocked, but embraced.

So, overall, I wish the story wasn't so Dances With Wolves, yet -- like most Cameron films -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And there's a reason we have "tried and true" stories. They work.

Simple. Clean. Strong.

Note to self.

Day 970-ish

It's been two and half years since I began writing Remnants. Remnants didn't start as Remnants, initially. It began as in the end (all lowercase for dramatic effect). And it began as a feature-length film script.

I wanted to write something we could shoot for a Coke and a smile. I assessed the people, places, and props I had access to and spun a web that connected them in the most interesting way possible. Now, two and a half years later, the film has become a web series and we have actors attached to names that previously only existed in my brain and on my computer screen. But more exciting and more daunting than that, we have a start date.

Mark your calenders. Judgement Day will be on January 22, 2010.