Heading Towards A Finish Line

It’s Tuesday. Our movie screens in 11 days. There is so much to do.

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Photo courtesy Katie Rosin

It has been a lot of fun receiving congratulation texts, calls and emails. And I’m getting excited for friends, family, and even some cast and crew to see our movie on the big screen. But we still have one slight hurdle to jump:

We have to finish the movie.

I know what you’re thinking. “Why would you submit your film to a film festival if it’s not finished?”

It’s a common practice. Film festivals are used to looking at unfinished cuts and can anticipate what the final product will look like, just as long as your running time is very close to final, and your music is in the same ballpark. Since September we have submitted our unfinished version, which was missing audio mix, score, color correction, VFX, and contained many temporary tracks in place of score and permanent placed tracks.

In the past few months we have finished our audio edit, approved almost all of our VFX, put together all our music, and are halfway through with color correction. But the clock is ticking. And there is no better deadline then actually having to screen the music in front of a live, ticket-buying, audience of 250 people.

This afternoon I will return to our lush Burbank post-production facility (they have snacks within reach of my greasy fat fingers! Fresh berries! And someone to get us hot or cold beverages whenever we want!) where we are in the final days of color correction.

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Another day, another edit bay.

Color correction involves going shot by shot, cleaning up the images. For example, if the streetlight in the background is too distracting, we can turn down the intensity. Or, if an actor has a zit poking out through the makeup, we can zap it. Or it can be big picture stuff like deciding how blue we want the sky, or the ocean.

It’s time consuming, but at the hands of our colorist Jake Weathers we are moving along. It helps to have our Director of Photography Senda Bonnet sitting in. She knows far more than I do about coloring (and filmmaking in general). My mantra for this process has always been “surround yourself by people who know more than you.” And that mantra has been working out for me.

But we are under the gun.

The plan is to finish color correction tomorrow, sync up the audio mix, work in the VFX, then add the credit roll and music to go under it. We on the production team have been scrutinizing our credits, double-checking all names. Getting information wrong in the credits would be embarrassing (and expensive to fix) so the time is now.

Once everything is imported we need to watch it in its entirety and make sure there are no glaring errors or admissions. Then we need to create DCP (Digital Cinema Package) which is a collection of files on a hard drive. These files, combined, make up the movie. The hard drive needs to be shipped to Washington D.C. this Friday so they have plenty of time to test screen it.

Going to be a busy week. Let’s hope we make it.

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Hearing Feedback

“I create art for art’s sake.”
“My opinion of my art is all that matters.”
“When I stop caring about what other people think is when I create my greatest work.”

Bullshit. Bullshit. And mostly bullshit.

I’m not speaking for everyone, only most of us. Yes, there are those out there who exist in a void where they can live and breathe their creative life, without a worry about money, commerce, and anyone else’s opinion of their creative works.

And if you want to meet these people, visiting hours are between 3pm – 6pm on Saturdays.

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The entire process of making a movie involves the feedback of others. While the script and story began in my brain and my brain only, it has been greatly improved by collaborators. Smart actors round out their characters and motivations. An experienced producer has an eye on making sure the story makes sense. But all that collaboration is theoretical until we actually see it on the big screen.

Since I am relatively inexperienced at making feature films, it is important to surround myself with people who have more experience (read: know what they are doing). And it worked. My game was elevated because of the wisdom of others.

A friend once gave me some amazing advice regarding receiving and processing feedback: when one person gives you a note, it is only their opinion. However, once three different people independently give you the same particular note, then it is time to seriously consider what is being said.

Now that we are editing, it is especially important to bring people in throughout the process who have more experience. Our editor Jeff frequently sought the advice of two mentor editors who would give him notes. When we had a rough cut we’d invite in members of our production team to watch and give notes. Then after taking in their notes, we would bring in people unfamiliar with the story to watch and give notes.

From the feedback sessions we received a lot of notes, most of which were either immediately addressed, incorporated, or ignored. However, some big concerns were raised. These concerns were brought up by multiple people. In some cases, almost everyone:

  • The first act of the movie (the first 25 minutes) is too long. And way too slow.
  • One of the supporting characters’ motivation is completely unclear until it’s too late.

The first note was easier to address: cut, cut, cut. Lines of dialogue and even entire beats were cut. Beginnings and ends to scenes were removed. Even individual frames were snipped from moments. Some of my favorite jokes: gone. We scrutinized everything and managed to shave over seven minutes from the first 25.

The second note was a little tougher. How do we reveal more information about a character, specifically how do we tip off to the audience that this character might be playing for the bad guys? And how do we do this now that the movie is shot? We can’t go back to a location and do re-shoots. Even if we could magically get our locations back and convince actors to come in for free, the cost of crew and equipment would push us well past what little money we have left.

But thanks to editing tricks (what our editor calls “fakery in the bakery”) there are subtle steps we can take: we can reframe a shot to focus on a detail that otherwise might have¬†been overlooked. We can blow up a shot to capture an emotion better that the original framing. Add a music theme that repeats, which subtly reminds the audience. Add sound effects. Hopefully using these tricks and others we are able to fix the problem.

Notes, adjust, notes, adjust, notes, adjust. After a few months of this we were ready for our next level of feedback: producers.

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We sent our movie out to those who make movies. People with experience doing exactly what we are doing. I won’t name names, but roughly a dozen people agreed to watch our film, and we got their thoughts. Most of it was positive; we were on the right track. Surprisingly, some of it was contradictory (one person thought we didn’t see enough of one character, another person thought we saw too much of the same character). Much of the feedback was constructive. We were on the right track.

Was all this feedback seeking worth it? After all, we didn’t get the feedback we really wanted. The comment that EVERY artist craves. Feedback like this:

“It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”

Does that unicorn of feedback exist? If not, we didn’t find it. But we did find a place, months into editing, when the three of us (producer, editor, director) looked at each other and said “this is it. This is our movie.”

So now our movie is picture locked. That means that while we still have sound to enhance, colors to correct, effects to create, the basic edit of the movie is done. Roughly 90 minutes of entertainment.

Is it perfect? No.

But it’s a movie now. And we are getting closer to showing it to you.

Editing Away

Compared to the grueling shooting schedule, life in post-production is pretty genteel. At least, for our movie. I set the hours. We sit in a darkened, climate-controlled room. There are snacks and a stocked fridge. We go out to lunch or bring in take out. J.J. Abrams’ production company is one block away. Also, I have my own parking place!

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When you know you’ve made it in Hollywood…

But it is work. I knew it would be a difficult process. First difficult part: the commute. In my five years in Los Angeles I’ve been fortunate that I’ve worked out of my home or in offices conveniently located near my home, with occasional meetings in far away places. We even shot most of Closure less than five miles from our home. I’ve watched Catia trudge all over town for auditions and sympathized, but never really experienced it. The edit room in Santa Monica is 15 miles from my home, and it takes 45 to 90 minutes to get there, depending on time of day. And in Los Angeles, there is no good time to hit the road. Maybe if I went to work at 11am and came home after 8pm the traffic gods would be kinder, but keeping up that schedule is difficult when, you know, you have to pick a kid up from day care at 5pm.

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If I leave the edit room after 3pm and before 7:30pm, this is what it’s like. Every week day.

 

Why Santa Monica? The editor (who was working well below rate) lives there. The edit facility (which gave us a deal also well below rate) is there. And when you are making an extremely low budget movie on limited resources, you sit in traffic. Totally worth it.

Once I get past the 405 and into the facility, then we can focus on the work. It is immediately apparent where we succeeded and failed. Fortunately, successes are many:

  • Excellent continuity. Our five principal actors (Catia Ojeda, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Sloan, Milena Govich and Tom Choi) are all TV veterans with experience as series regulars. This means that continuity has been worked into their blood. And I’m not just talking about making sure the drink level is the same. Continuity involves turning the head the same way every time, folding arms the same, walking and stopping at the same place. The continuity is important so we can use different takes, depending on which line delivery we like more. And with these five, they are VERY reliable.
  • It looks gorgeous. Our D.P. Senda Bonnet and her team certainly did a lot with very little, but it looks magnificent. And Chantal Massuh-Fox and the rest of the art department dressed things wonderfully with extremely limited time and budget.¬†Many times after watching footage, I would say that “it looks like a real movie.” Because it is.
  • Everyone involved got the script. What I mean by that is that this movie is slightly surreal. Characters aren’t 100% true to life, and the actors understood this, as did our Costume Designer Jennifer May Nickel, who’s take on costumes was as slightly askew as the characters wearing them. Everyone is working from the same playbook. Which means as director, I guess I did my job!

But it’s not all roses and Oscar nominations. We shot the movie so quickly there was little time to breathe, let alone reflect on how we were doing. But now, sitting in the cold and dark room, staring at a large screen, all the flaws are sobering. And MAGNIFIED. There is no escape from the mistakes, and each time we watch there are more. Regrets? I’ve had PLENTY: some casting choices, some directing choices, many missed opportunities for better lines, better plot twists, better everything.

So I spend my days on a roller coaster of emotion, bounding between elation for what was going right and the lows of anxiety, debating internally whether I was more of a hack as a screenwriter or as a director.

Jeff, our zen editor, kept an even keel. He liked what he saw, and much of what he didn’t he said could be fixed with “fakery in the bakery.” So after over a month of faking, restructuring, hiding flaws and magnifying gems, we had my official directors cut, which ran an hour and 42 minutes (including a four minute blank spot for closing credits, which are usually included in the run time). Time to show it to some trusted members of the team.

And we did. And that’s when we REALLY went to work.


Coming up next: Surviving multiple feedback sessions.

 

Diving back in…

I recently completed a draft of a brand new play. While I am prepping to stage a reading of the first act at The Actors Studio, I now have time to get back into the script Closure. You know, the reason I am writing this blog. So now that the play draft is complete, the dishes are done, the floors vacuumed, the junk mail opened, the DVR emptied…

You get the point. It’s a cliche that a writer’s room is immaculate before we sit down to write, as if we’d rather do anything than write. And part of that is true, the act of sitting down and beginning a new draft is not very different from starting a project from scratch. Especially this project. After the table read and feedback months ago, I had a good idea of how I wanted to proceed. Then I sat down for drinks with a trusted writer friend who offered his thoughts on the script. While generally positive, he felt that I didn’t go far enough with one aspect of the plot. He suggested a shocking plot twist, and this suggestion was a eureka moment. The lead character would certainly act in the way he was describing, it was consistent in that regard. I became excited about the story again, and was salivating at the thought of diving back in and taking this script to a whole new level. There was only problem: this twist happens 30 minutes into the script. Which will then change everything after this point.

So it’s almost like writing a brand new script.

And this is why, in the month since this revelatory meeting, I have avoided work on this script. Radically rewriting the second and third act of the script will take a lot of work. Entire scenes and characters may be cut. I will also need to outline the second and third act, and I usually do not enjoy the outlining process. But it’s exciting, and it will make it a better film. It takes hard work at every step, I guess.

So recently I dove back in, and while I was working I did not find it tedious. In fact, when I stepped away from work for dinner I was still thinking about it, and eager to sit back down again. This is a good sign.

So it may take a while. I’m giving myself a deadline of February 17th, a month from now, to finish the next draft, and that includes the outline. So here we go…

Diving

Notes…and more notes

“There are three primal urges in human beings: food, sex, and rewriting somebody else’s play.” Romulus Linney

I enjoy rewrites. I enjoy taking the puzzle apart and putting it back together to make a different and hopefully better image. At this stage of the game it’s good to get another perspective, or in my case, multiple perspectives. Scripts percolate so long in my own brain that I have learned to ignore flaws (all babies are beautiful, especially mine) and take leaps in logic that might not read to an outsider. Or every outsider.

This week I turned in one script, and like a revolving door in a farce, notes came in regarding my other script that I completed last week. These notes came from trustworthy sources: generally when I finish a script, there are usually a handful of people who I trust to give feedback at this early stage. Also, and possibly of more importance, these are people who I don’t feel are bothered by reading an early draft. They don’t feel put upon, and they are also close enough to tell me that they can’t get to it right now. You need honesty. But kind, gentle honesty.

So, after sending the script to the director for his notes, I also sent it to three people for feedback: one is an actor, one is a director/writer, and the other is an editor/director. A good balance, each with a different perspective on how they look at scripts. They took their time reading it, and each sat down with me, either in person or on the phone, and spent 30 precious minutes out of their own lives going over their thoughts. I am grateful for their feedback. Much of it was very helpful. Well, it was ALL helpful, but I will not utilize all of the notes.

But how to choose what works and what doesn’t? Due to my improv background, I’m a very “yes and” person. Someone takes the time to read my work, I want to assume their suggestions will make the piece better. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes the feedback comes in the form of a suggestion that stems from the reader’s own artistic sensibility and skill set. These notes can be rewritten so they can start with “if this was my script, I’d…” Recognize these notes, and file them away.

Here is the best advice I received on taking notes: if one person offers a note, it is a suggestion. If three people give the same note, then something needs to change. This is why I seek the counsel of three or more people. Sure enough, there were a slew of notes that each reader had in common. And so I listened. And now I rewrite.

Of course, none of this has to do with the notes of the director. If he wants a change, and it fits with the world of the story, then he shall have it. Because unless I am directing the script myself (and hopefully this blog will detail that process down the road) at some point I have to give up this baby and let someone else raise it.

Stay on the tracks

So far I have written 40 pages of the first draft. Screenplays tend to have three acts, and I have already completed the first act. I’m happy with the progress, but now it’s time to fight all my instincts and press forward.

The hardest part of my job as conductor of this script train is to stay on the tracks and keep aiming for the station, which is roughly 50-70 pages away. It’s a hard job because more than anything I want to go back. Now that I’m this far in, I know so much more about my lead character and I want to enhance the details. My supporting characters are barely sketched out now, and I know what they desire and need. Locations now have detailed items in them. Some scenes can be shorter. Other need to be longer. I want to go back and fix these things.

But I won’t. I can’t speak for every writer, but I know from experience now that if I go back and fix things I will fall behind, and will unlikely catch up. Once I get into tweaking things, that process will never stop. Little tweaks beget little tweaks, and before I know it I’ll have an extremely tight and brilliant 20 pages, and I’ll be 85-years-old and straining from reading my script on my iPhone 37G.

It’s not too dramatic to say if I stop the train and it’s momentum, I will not get it going again and I will never reach the station. Also, like most trains and modes of travel, there is an arrival time. Writing a script should be no different. I’m going to say that the First Draft Express is due to arrive at Completion Station on March 15th. Arbitrary? Sure. But an arbitrary deadline is much better than no deadline.