STOP WITH THE PROSE, ALREADY

Fairly frequently I’m given an unsolicited screenplay to read, to consider directing, or to give my two–cents on.  I try my hardest to not read any of them.  But every now and again, curiosity takes hold, and I’ll open one up.  Sometimes the scripts are filled with spelling errors, stilted dialogue, boring scenes, you name it, but there is one mistake I see most often across the board: too much ink on the page and not enough white space.

Screenplays aren’t novels.

The purpose of a screenplay is entirely different than that of a novel.  I could go as far as to say screenplays aren’t even meant to be read.  I know that might sound weird.  But, think about it.  What is the purpose of a screenplay?  Screenplays are meant to be spoken, heard and watched.

Screenplays are a map.

They should be made up of great dialogue, with brief descriptions of specific actions that happen when nothing is being spoken.

I agree that scripts should include some prose to set the tone and hint at the atmosphere, but my advice is to keep it light.  We do not need to know the year, make and model of a car, or learn about the squeaky door, or the broken windshield wipers.  We just need to know it’s an old, shitty car.  Allow the reader to imagine whatever they want.  Even then, their imagination will hinder how they interpret your story.  No one will totally “get it” until they SEE it.

In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, he writes:

CUT TO:
Young Alvy at the food-stand concession watching three military men representing the Army, the Navy and the Marines arm in arm with a blond woman in a skirted bathing suit.  They all turn and run toward the foreground.  The girl stops before the camera to lean over and throw a kiss.  The sign over the concession reads “Steve’s Famous Clam Bar.  Ice Cold Beer,” and the roller coaster is moving in full gear in the background.

That would be much easier to read if it looked like this:

EXT. STEVE’S FAMOUS CLAM BAR – DAY
Young Alvy watches three military men arm in arm with a woman in a bathing suit.
They run towards us.
The girl stops to lean over and –
throw us a kiss.
The roller coaster is moving in the background.

By adding more white to the page, we’re able to move through the description faster, getting back to the dialogue.  Some might argue that Woody Allen’s prose adds a different kind of atmosphere than mine does.  I say that in either case, no one watching the film will ever know how it was written.  And not everyone making the film is going to imagine that shot exactly as the director will see it and film it, so it doesn’t matter.

When you’re watching a movie you can’t read what the script says.  So why not keep the paper light, effortless and easy to use?

If there is something visually specific in your screenplay that you’d like to communicate to the reader, my advice is to attach a visual design book to accompany the script.  Sometimes I’ll include storyboards, costume designs, even hairstyles.  For my film FIRECRACKER, I even incorporated images into the screenplay and provided music to listen to while reading it.

Most people in the Industry will tell you never to do that.  But don’t listen to them.  They’re just stuck in a box.  Do what YOU want.  I did it, and it worked.  Shortly after sending my FIRECRACKER script to him, Dennis Hopper called me up personally and invited me to his house.  When I was there Dennis told me he wanted to be in the film and added, “This is one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read.”

I’ve read dreadful screenplays that made spectacular, dazzling, poetic movies, and I’ve read brilliant screenplays that have made terribly uninteresting movies.  At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the illustration of the vision, the poetry of the dialogue and performers who can nail it.

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

TOP OR BOTTOM?

There are two ways to budget your movie.  The first, which is known as the traditional manner in which all movies are budgeted, is Bottom Up budgeting.  It’s the least effective way to budget a movie, but most everyone does it.

Bottom Up budgeting is where you start from ground zero with no idea what your movie is going to cost.  Then you identify all the people, jobs, things you think you need, and at the end you’ll have the amount that will cost.  There is software out there, which can help you down this path.  See this example of a traditional budget Top Sheet.

When using this software, you’ll scour an endless list of job titles, finding out there are jobs you never knew about, but that you must need, now that you’re thinking of them.  Yes, a Script Supervisor would be great.  $100 per day is a bit much so you plop in $20 per day.  Then you’ll go to the next job, plop in a new amount, and so on.  At the end of the list, the software will tally up all the jobs and expenses you typed in, and voila: you see the budget for you movie.  In this case, your movie will cost over $240,000.

But then you’re faced with the reality of trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars.  Which, if you can do it, great, by all means, have at it!  But, chances are in this economy it simply isn’t going to happen.  You might raise half that, or even less… but a quarter million?

I prefer to budget a movie using a Top Down approach.  This is where you start with an amount and deduct items you know you can afford, and do away with the items you can’t or don’t need.

Let’s say we believe we can raise $60,000 to produce the movie.  Or, let’s say we have already raised $60,000 and we’re not sure that’s enough.  I’m here to tell you it’s more than enough, and here’s how you’ll do it.

First, identify the items you must have.  Not things you think you need.  You don’t need a Script Supervisor.  Anybody on your crew can do it – since the job is required only when cameras are rolling.  If you’re making a horror film that requires visual effects, or special effects make-up, those items are mandatory.  So, write those down and subtract their cost (let’s say $7,500).  Now you only have $52,500 remaining in your budget.

Next up, fifteen people on the cast and crew.  Let’s say you’ll shoot for two weeks and pay everyone $50 per day.  Subtract $10,500.  Now you only have $42,000 remaining.  Can you get those people to work for deferred?  If so, you can add $10,500 back into your budget.  Need to fly them to the set?  Subtract those costs, or see if you can use airline miles and add those costs back in.

Hopefully you get where I’m going with this.  I’m thinking about expenses as if I were using a debit card.  Not a credit card.

I understand the general public would rather use a credit card instead of a debit card.  The traps of “buy now, figure out how to pay for it later” are easy to fall into.  But those people are usually in debt.

By handling your budget in the Top Down approach; you’ll know exactly how much money you have and can make realistic decisions on what you can afford.  And what you can’t.  Which will keep your movie on budget, and you won’t waste a cent.

CUT OUT THE FAT

If you have a backer with unlimited financial resources like, say, a pharmaceutical company, then this doesn’t apply to you (i.e. Studios).  But for the rest of the filmmaking world, think about this.  People cost time and money.  Even people working for free.

Every single person on your crew will cost a certain amount of money.  That amount varies, of course, because maybe you’re housing people at neighbors and friends.  But if you aren’t, you’re going to have to house them someplace.  Cheap motels aren’t free.  Some people have the ability to fly or drive to you, feed themselves, and bring their own bottled water to the set.  But will everybody?  Probably not.

The easiest way to save time and money is to cut out unnecessary crew members.  If you operate your own camera, you don’t need a camera person.  If you know about lighting, you won’t need a DP.  You don’t need a Gaffer, because anybody can hold the reflector or turn on the light.  Go for an intern.  If you have a DP or camera person it usually means you’ll add another dozen or so people automatically.  Most DPs and camera people can’t manage to hold the camera and also pull focus, change lenses, memory cards, download cards, etc., and they will usually request an additional person for each of those simple activities.  And all of those people will have NOTHING to do but stand there and wait for their specific duty.

By having the actors manage their own costumes and props, you omit the need for a props person, props assistant, costumer, seamstress, and whomever else those people “need” to assist them in order to do their jobs.  Of course, if you use a costume person, consider another area on the crew you can omit a person.  Can that costume person also manage being on Script during the takes (since they’d otherwise be doing nothing)?

By keeping on schedule and doing adequate planning ahead of time, you’ll also omit the need for a Second AD, and any other office-type person who would otherwise have nothing to do but sit around all day waiting to see if you’re behind schedule.

In addition to saving money, by omitting unneeded crew people, you’ll also save time.  The more people you have, the more time it takes for everyone to show up.  More people means less time in the loo (so “take 15 minutes” usually turns into “it’s been 45 minutes, we’re already behind, and not everyone has had a chance to use the toilet.”)

When an aspiring film student comes up to me and says, “I want to work on your crew, I’ll do anything, I’ll even pay my own way,” it’s very tempting to have them join the team.  But I’ve learned to draw the line.  While it’s helpful if one or two people come aboard under those circumstances, six or seven end up bogging down the set.

In addition to saving time and money, a smaller set is more enjoyable.  If you’ve never been on a film set before, you’ll come to love the days when hardly anyone is there.  Fat or thin, tall or short, the fact is, people take up space.

Add in equipment cases, bags, tripods, even at the barest minimum, it becomes crowded really quickly.  And, a crowded hallway isn’t as easy to walk down as an empty one.  Getting on and off the set, or in and out of the location is far easier when there are only a handful of people.

I know it’s exciting to have all your friends around to watch, and people willing to work for free, but please consider my advice and draw the line someplace.  If a person isn’t actually doing something useful, get rid of them.  Or select certain days on the schedule when they could be useful, and tell them to stay home on days that aren’t.

DISTRIBUTION: SALES AGENTS

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles solely about distribution.  A lot of filmmakers are confused about the realities of distribution, and rightly so.  I’ve been making and selling movies internationally for over a decade, and I’m still learning about all the secrets and tricks The Industry hides from us.  Part of the problem is that no one shares this information with each other, both the good and bad, so I’m making it my mission to do so.  Openly, honestly, and hopefully clearly.

When your film is ready for release, there are a variety of ways to get it out into the world.  There are aggregators and sales reps, producer’s reps and distributors, foreign sales agents and a variety of “middle men” who can help you.

Today we’re going to talk about just one of those ways.  The Sales Agent.

Sales Agents are people who represent dozens, if not hundreds, of movie titles.  They take these films to markets such as Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.  (Film Markets are not to be confused with Film Festivals, which sometimes happen simultaneously and in conjunction to Film Markets).  While attending these markets, they rent a booth or a space (such as a hotel room), and invite buyers from different distribution companies from all over the world, to stop by their booth and check out their titles.  Sometimes the Sales Agent will aggressively track down certain buyers from different countries with promotional flyers about your film.

The Asylum was the first Sales Agent I worked with and they were downright brilliant.  They are incredibly nice people, they paid their bills, they were actively in touch with us, and sharing with us ways they were selling PEP SQUAD.  They managed to sell my movie all over the globe: Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Scandinavia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, China, Greece, the Baltic States, Indonesia, the Middle East, Portugal, Thailand, and Turkey.  Oh, and even Canada.  I can’t tell you how sad (okay, devastated) I was the day I learned The Asylum wouldn’t be actively selling other people’s movies anymore.

Finding a new Sales Agent to replace The Asylum was a bit like being dumped by the love of your life and having to quickly find a new soul mate or risk perishing into the depths of hell forever.  I think I’ve found a nice replacement, but to date they haven’t made as many sales as The Asylum did for us, so I’m waiting to decide if it’s true love or just fond admiration.

In the process of finding the good guys, I worked with a variety of scumbag Sales Agents selling several of my movies.  And I’ve encountered many that were so full of themselves, and so rude, that I ended up not hiring them.

First, remember that you are hiring a Sales Agent.  They aren’t hiring you.  Their egos are sometimes a problem.  To keep their egos well fed, they will often treat you badly so you think you need them, when in all honesty, to keep in business, they need you.  If they don’t have your film on their roster, they’ll have to find someone else’s film.  They cannot afford to remain in business if they aren’t selling as many movies as they can.  So if you took your film to the next sales agent, they’ll be the ones in a loss.

The second lesson is to BEWARE of Sales Agents’ so-called “marketing expenses.”  I’ve been to the Cannes.  I know for a fact it doesn’t cost several hundred thousand dollars to be there.

Most Sales Agents will pad their “marketing expenses” so they can fly First Class, put themselves up at the Carlton, or Hotel du Cap (well over $1,000 a night) and dine at the “in” places, with tasting menus featuring 20 courses, wine pairings, and more.  Yes.  That’s what they spend their money on.  Or, your money, rather.  They don’t use it to sell your movie.  They think they should be treated like Sharon Stone.  Or Madonna.  And somehow they will try and convince you they should be.

Sales Agents will sometimes pay you an advance when they acquire your movie, but then as they sell it to different buyers, they keep all the money that comes in until they recoup their “marketing expenses.”  Unless you’ve read the fine print and capped their expenses, you may never see another cent beyond the advance.

I prefer not getting an advance in exchange for the Sales Agent taking a commission on all sales, and giving me my shares from the first dollars in.  When you’re signing an agreement with a Sales Agent, be sure to discuss this aspect openly.

CASTING: A NEW WAY TO AUDITION

Traditionally, when casting a movie, there are a few standard approaches to how to do it.  One is to have a cattle call, where actors come in, perform a monologue, give you their headshot and resume, and leave.  Another is a process where actors come in and read pages of the script (called “sides”), by themselves, or maybe with a second actor also reading sides.

For me, the traditional casting process is useless.

I don’t have actors audition in the traditional sense.  When I do a cattle call, I simply visit with people and take a look at their reels, or resumes, and that’s about it.  If I decide to have them audition, I will have them put themselves on tape later on.  But there is no reason to make actors do random monologues that have nothing to do with your movie.  Unless your character is exactly like Hamlet, do you really care if Actor Carl the best Hamlet in the world?

Doing cold readings from “sides” are totally unfair to the actor and also to the director.  I can’t expect an actor to walk in off the street without any previous discussion with me and nail it.  Sure, sometimes magic happens.  But, it’s unfair to ask the actor to do that.  It would be most beneficial to everyone involved if the actor and the director could speak about the character in question.  Actors act.  That’s what they do.  Most of the good ones can play any part you throw at them.

If an actor does a reading that isn’t a match with the director’s idea of the role, it is totally unfair for the director to judge that actor.  How could that actor know what the director is thinking unless the director says so?  Actors can be talented, but most are not psychic.  They need some “direction” which—oh wait—that’s why they call it a Director.

Yet, most often, bad directors hold cold reads and casting calls and will judge an actor based on their ability to perform without any direction.  Those are the directors who want actors who can direct themselves so he/she doesn’t have to do any work.

When I’m casting a movie, I like to meet performers and match their personalities with their co-stars.  If I think someone has the right energy for the part, I ask them to do a private video audition.  We visit a bit about the character, and then they record a short video in character introducing themselves to me.

They don’t work off the script, they just work off the energy inside the character and it’s totally improvisational.  I explain to each performer that there is no right or wrong way to interpret the character.  Part of the exercise is just so I can see how they look and move on screen.  Videos also convey if the actor has a deeper understanding of the character in question, or if they’ll need some additional guidance.

Sometimes I’ll ask an actor to do two videos, each with a different character.  This is a great idea if you’ve never worked with the individual before.  Because, they will show you what kind of an actor they are and you won’t have to guess.  If the actor shows you two totally different performances, it is clear they have a range and can do a variety of roles.  But, sometimes, if they perform both parts with pretty much the same style, it sends the signal they deliver one type of performance.  Which isn’t bad.

One time I had a gal do two video auditions for two roles, and she was pretty much the same in both.  Even though they were vastly different characters.  But, she was great at doing the thing she did.  So I cast her in a part totally suited for that kind of performance.  And, she nailed it.

Doing video auditions is also very valuable when you’re shooting a film across the globe.  When I shot my film CULTURE SHOCK in London and Paris, the only way for me to audition people was via Skype and video.  There was no money to fly me overseas to do the traditional casting process.

Traditionalists scoff at my concepts, but I think they work wonders and save lots of time and money.  So next time you prepare a casting or audition, think about what it is you want to achieve from it.  And do whatever you can to reach the goal.

MAKE IT REWARDING

There are only two reasons an actor will want to work for deferred pay.  One is about whom they’re working with—who are their co-stars, who is directing, or maybe who is creating the costumes or effects make-up.  The second reason is the type of role—is it a character that would showcase their talent or range, or is it a challenging type of role they’ve never tried before.

When I’m asking someone to work for deferred, I know what I’m asking.  I put myself in their shoes and ask, “Would I want to do this project under these circumstances?”  I have to be able to answer YES to that question, and if I can’t, I won’t ask it of someone else.

For $1,000 a day I can tolerate crappy food, miserable conditions, so I know most everyone else can, too.  But, what if there isn’t any money?  If we can’t afford to pay people, how else can we shape the experience to be worth it?  What kinds of things would I need in exchange for money?  How can I make it enjoyable, with good food, and a good working environment?  These are the kinds of special cares I think about when putting a movie together.

So, in addition to making sure my cast connects, and giving each juicy roles to showcase their talent, I make the entire experience a cross between a vacation and summer camp.  If you can make it so they never want to leave, it’s possible that when the opportunity comes up again, they’d pay you for the privilege to experience it all over again.

It doesn’t have to be the ideal vacation spot like Hawaii.  It could be an adventure in other ways.  My film CULTURE SHOCK, which was shot in London, had a day-trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower.  Filming a movie in London was more than enough, but that added day trip to Paris for a scene that only took an hour to film, was the cherry on top.

You don’t have to take your cast and crew to Hong Kong (like I did), or Italy (I’m working on that one), or Hawaii (wouldn’t that be lovely?), but please take the time to think about what kinds of things can be added to boost the whole experience during working hours—and after.

Even if I’m shooting in my backyard in Kansas (which is exotic for people on the coasts who don’t know what it’s like being in full-on, down-home “Americana”), the experience must be rewarding.  I must create something special.

The days must be light and enjoyable.  People must be allowed to get plenty of sleep.  There cannot be anyone negative on the set.  All actors and crew people are carefully hand picked based on more than their abilities (their personality and behavior is also considered).  The meals must be delicious, activities enjoyable and camaraderie wonderful.

If you can deliver these kinds of things, and make your film shoots a totally rewarding experience for everyone involved, you’ll have no problems finding people to work for next to nothing.  And you’ll probably have them coming back for more.

FINDING YOUR PERCEPTION

No two people see the same thing the same way. It’s a fact.  No two sets of eyes share the exact same perspective – even when we’re looking at the exact same thing.  Everyone on earth has an individual overall perception of everything that resides past the tips of his nose.  Many people dislike looking past the tips of their noses – in either direction – but that doesn’t change the fact that no two people see the same thing the same way.  There is no singular perspective.  No overall point of view.  Even when thousands of people are gathered in a convention center looking at the man at a podium – no two people in the room will have the same point of view.  One man watches from this angle – another man watches from millimeters away.  No matter how hard you try – it will be impossible to see out another person’s eyes.  It’s just not going to happen while you’re alive.

The first thing I learned attending film school at CalArts was… and they actually said this… “You don’t need a degree to be a filmmaker – you just need to be a filmmaker.”  The second thing I learned was the concept of individual perception.  Upon hearing the word, the first thing I wondered was, “What is perception? Is it something to be found in a textbook?  Certainly, I’ll have to buy all the books and required reading.  I mustn’t miss a single class – just in case they pass out samples.  Maybe after next year’s tuition payment they’ll tell me what it is.  Must be exciting, this ‘perception’ business, because it’s certainly costly.  I mean, one could purchase a Mercedes for the same price. It must be something rather extraordinary.”

Well, it was.  When I understood the notion of individual ‘perception,’ it was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me.  It was, in fact, better than a Mercedes.  It’s one of the most exciting, most rewarding ideas I have ever pursued.  Having a core – a self – wherein *I* am in charge of what I see – changed my life.

There was a class at CalArts called Scene Analysis (or something of the sort).  We watched films and took them apart shot by shot, scene by scene – inspected, from an overview floor plan (like an architectural blue print), where the camera was positioned for each shot.  We also studied where the actors were standing and where the lights were positioned.

Here’s what I learned.

Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini, Huston, Kubrick, and the other so-called masters, weren’t putting the camera in the *best* place.  They weren’t putting the lighting in the *best* place.  They weren’t using the world’s *best* stories.  So I began to wonder: “Why on earth are they so admired?  What’s all the fuss about?  I’ve seen their work.  I’ve inspected each frame down to the millisecond.  What’s so special about them and not other filmmakers?  What do they have that others don’t?  Most everyone has seen a Lynch film.  Nine out of ten people think they make no sense, have no purpose, and look at the story and don’t ‘get it,’ so what’s the big deal?”

Well – the biggest deal is: Perception.  That’s what they’ve got that no one else seems to understand.  They have an individual perception.  Special emphasis should be placed on the word INDIVIDUAL.  These artists don’t look at their families, friends and neighbors to answer how they ought to see something.  They don’t look to their schools, churches or governments for definitions on how to be or think.  They simply look inward and ask themselves, “How do *I* see this?”  And once they answer the question – on their own – they respond with, “If I see it like this, I shall put the camera here.”  They do not have other people telling them where to put the camera or how to light the scene.  They answer to no one but themselves.  Their eyes tell the tale – not the eyes of the D.P., Key Grip, Focus Puller, leading actor or Editor.

These filmmakers are masters because they are simply putting the image together as they see it.  Seems easy enough.  So why aren’t most people doing the same thing?  Why is our entire culture doing the total opposite?

I suspect that there is a reason why the notion of individual “perception” isn’t taught in schools.  Clearly there is a reason why the concept of individual viewpoint is not encouraged at church.  Why?  First and foremost, the concept of individual perception is very dangerous to those who maintain their power through prescribing what is accepted and what is not, and “persuading” the populace, whether it is the marketplace for movies or the voters of a nation, to a single, externally defined criteria for a group perception.  Never mind that the term “group perception” is an oxymoron.

If an instructor at a university actually understood the concept of individual perception, it would make grading the work of students much more difficult.  Beginning with an admission that the professor’s view was not the “right and only way,” it would force enormous change upon institutions of higher learning, not to mention calling their very existence into question.  If society actually embraced the idea that no two people see the same thing the same way, it would revolutionize interpersonal communication.  We can only imagine what would happen to movie reviews, at least as we know them.  Instead of Mr. Critic proclaiming for the world what a film is about or what it means, he would actually leave it to the viewer to derive his own perception from the work.  After all, it was the *viewer’s perception* not his.  They had it.  He didn’t.  Their eyes are their eyes.  His eyes are his.  Just a thought: this will never occur in our lifetimes.  The power structure will see to it that the concept of individual perception is squashed wherever it seems to blossom.  Governments, religious institutions, big business, education… you name it… have a vested interest in promulgating the notion that “one size fits all.”

On my street, one size does NOT fit all.  I’m a little over six-foot-four.  *Normal* chairs don’t have the right height.  I can’t sit at a *normal* desk without ramming my knees into the low desktop.  And it doesn’t end there…  *Normal* counter-tops are too low.  The *normal* clothing sizes located at the mall simply don’t fit me.  I wear size thirteen shoes.  No one carries them.  It was like pulling teeth to get the plumber to install a shower head at the correct height.  He said, “But this is where they put shower heads.  No one puts them that high.”

“I understand this, but I’d like the shower head to pour down on my face.  I really don’t want it to be at my chest-level.  I’m not five-foot-eight and I shouldn’t have to pretend I am just so you feel better about it.”

It then occurred to me that the plumber was, in fact, my size.  How could he live his life never questioning this.  Has he never noticed his own shower head?  Has he never noticed the height of his bathroom sink?  Probably not.  He probably has spent a lifetime defining his expectations and beliefs because *THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE*.

It amazes me that people seem to PREFER just going along and letting the world define who they are and what they ought to believe.  I recently got a call from a storyboard artist.  He offered to sketch my storyboards for my next movie.  I thought, how strange… Why would I want to shoot a film from his perspective?  Wouldn’t I rather use my own?  My eyes are not his eyes.  I mean, it’s an interesting concept, to photograph someone else’s vision.  For me, it goes against what I define for myself as a filmmaker.  If I’m not using my own perception of the material – what the hell am I doing?  Lounging by the fucking pool?

Beware the people who pay lip service to the notion that there are 6 billion viewpoints in the world.  Even as they say that, they attempt to categorize entire nations into a single descriptive group.  Muslim, Jew, Christian.  All Muslims are terrorists.  All Jews are rich.  All Christians are good.  Well, it just isn’t true.  In fact, we’ve got a few Christians in Kansas that…  Well, there’s no reason to mention their hateful Baptist church out loud.

The next time that some politician tells you to vote for him because he shares your values, ask him how he knows what your values are and what is so special about him that he can see the world through your eyes.  The next time some “know-it-all” tells you that your script isn’t traditional enough, or your short story doesn’t follow the accepted structure, look deep inside and see if it fits your requirements and definitions.  If it does, tell them to mind their own business.

Everyone would benefit by having an individual perception.  Yet…  Most people fight it.  Most people do NOT want to have their own perceptions.  They avoid developing their own unique, individualized viewpoints.

Why would anyone NOT want to have his or her own perception?  Could it be…  Is it maybe…  Just maybe…  People want to avoid taking responsibility for themselves?  Consider this: It’s so much easier to blame someone else.  Somehow the world has defined responsibility as ‘fault’ – and fault as something demeaning or negative.  But the truth is – everything that happens in YOUR life is YOUR fault.  YOU are responsible for your actions and reactions.  YOU are responsible for YOU.  Not your neighbors, churches, schools or governments.

People who don’t like hearing things like that will always find an excuse to justify their behavior.  Commonly, people use money as their primary excuse: “Oh, I don’t have enough money to make a film…” or “Oh, I’d love to move away and be an actor but I don’t have the money…”  Another one is, “I’d love to work outside with my hands but I can’t afford to give up my present job.”  Well, then, why not figure out how to make it, be it or do it?  There are ways to find investors, or a job to pay your expenses or a different and affordable lifestyle.

The second set of excuses usually deals with blaming other people. “But I can’t leave my spouse and do what I want to do…” or “If I do what I want people will think I’m crazy!”  Okay.  Maybe so.  But who is driving your car?  Be aware there *are* choices.

Finally, people unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior will use horror or abuse.  “9/11 wasn’t my fault!  So there!  You’re wrong!”  No, chances are, the horrific terrorist acts of 9/11 were not your fault.  But ask yourself: Who forced you to stop working until 9/15?  Who made you sit in front of the television?  Did the terrorists?  Or did you choose to do that all on your own?  “I’m abused on a daily basis.  It’s not my fault he beats me.”  You are correct, it isn’t your fault if you have been beaten.  At least not the actual hitting.  But do you make the choice to remain in that environment?  Do you seek help or escape?

Everything that happens in your life is your fault.  Another way of saying it is that you are responsible for determining what you do, how you do it and what your attitude toward life is.  Environmental things will occur.  Storms will come.  Accidents will happen.  Disasters will occur.  But what you do, how you respond, is up to you.  It’s one of the first hurdles to overcome in developing your own perception.  If you make the choice to not find investors, then you probably won’t have any.  If you make the choice to not create a business plan, you won’t have one.  If you make the choice to not find a job you enjoy, chances are, you will probably work at a job you hate.  If you make the choice to let society define who you are, you won’t be the one defining you.  Is this what you want?  Are these your choices?  If not, remember the old saying, “People who dislike having their feet sliced open should avoid walking on shards of glass.”

If you want to make films, or tell a story, or work in a forest, or sit on a mountain…  Well, get your shit together first.  Develop YOU and YOUR point of view.  Are you going to define your story by what it says in the “How to Write a Script” book?  Will you define your perspective by the rules in the “Filmmaking for Dummies” manual?

According to the 2001 CIA World Factbook, men in the USA, on average, live to 72, while women live to 79.  For the sake of making this less confusing, let’s say the average span of a human life is 75.  About 35% of it is lost in sleep.  And another 30% of that is lost to the vicissitudes of youth, while 10% is probably spent being old and/or ill.  That leaves about 25% of those 75 years to be all we can be, to do all we can do, and to live life as though it is as precious as it actually is.  We have 18 or 19 years during which we can make choices that enrich our lives, put meaning into our relationships and advance the causes we believe in.

Just eighteen years.  That isn’t a very long time.  Every day we are given choices. Every time we look at something we are given the opportunity to either learn – or not; to do – or don’t.  What will YOU choose?

On my street we praise the individual for striving.  It isn’t about quantitative success.  After all, whose definition of success are we using?  We have some simple questions on my street.  “Are you happy?  Are you fulfilled?  Do you have a sense of reward at the end of the day?  Are you meeting YOUR expectations (as opposed to those of someone else)?”  And when the answers are “no” which they sometimes are, we ask these questions: “What could you do differently that would get you what you want?  Is there another path to pursue that might yield different results?  Are there people in the world that might help you?  Have you fully defined what you want?”  These questions keep me, and others on my street, focused on being responsible for our own results, not thinking wishfully about what could have been or how unfair life is.  Next time you start to blame somebody else for your less than desired situation, try a couple of those questions on for size.

(originally published in “Balderson Blvd” for Aftertaste Magazine, 2001)

EXPOSURE AND MONEY

They aren’t one and the same.  Sometimes they go together and sometimes they don’t.

Because of my interest in eating well, I’ve known many restaurant owners.  Once, I asked a maverick restaurateur why her bottles of wine were priced less than other fine dining establishments.  She confided in me that her main objective was to move more product.  Her goal was to sell twice as many bottles of wine than her competition.  So she priced them affordably.  Usually the markup is ridiculous.  A good $12 bottle of wine in a liquor store usually costs $24-36 at a restaurant.  But, at her establishment, it might only cost $22-26.

I used to struggle with this idea until I started realizing what my preferences were when it came to releasing movies.  Often times, people will ask me which of my films has been the most successful.  It’s a really hard question to answer.  First, I have to ask them what they define as success.  Everyone has an entirely different definition.  Some people define success as the amount of money a movie makes, while others might define success based on the critical acclaim, awards, exposure, or in what countries your movie is released.

My film FIRECRACKER was released in almost every country on the planet, won numerous awards, pre-eminent film critic Roger Ebert gave it a special Jury Prize on his list of that year’s best films, yet the investors never made a decent return on their investment and in the USA it was basically shelved by the stupid distributor and is currently only available for streaming at Vimeo On Demand HERE: www.Vimeo.com/ondemand/firecracker

WELLSPRING was a really cool distribution company who wanted to distribute FIRECRACKER.  The company is now long defunct, but at the time they were the coolest boutique place to be.  They were distributing Todd Solondz’ movies.  WELLSPRING offered a decent advance, but only wanted to print 10,000 dvds.  While another distributor, FIRST LOOK STUDIOS, was offering a little less money but planned to release 50,000+ dvds on the initial run.  We decided to go with the FIRST LOOK.

For me, at that time in my career, it was more important to have the volume and exposure, even if I was setting myself up for less financial reward.

When it comes time to release a film, I always ask myself, in the event I’m unable to strike a deal for global exposure AND financial reward, which is better: to release the film globally, in as many countries as possible, for potentially less return?  Or is it better to have a smaller release in a just a few countries and make more money?  Each movie has a different set of criteria and a different set of questions and answers.

Of course we all want as many people as possible to have the chance to see our work.  And we also hope for great financial return so we can continue to make more movies.  This is why it’s important for me to keep costs as low as possible.  That way, I have a greater chance of financial reward.

Some of you might not know that exhibitors take 50% of any ticket sales at the movie theatre.  So if a studio movie cost $50million to produce and market, they will need to have box office returns that exceed $100million before they’ll ever see a cent of profit.  If you’ve sold your movie to a distributor, the distribution company will take even more, so the likelihood is you’ll need a box office figure closer to $150million before you’re living the Sinatra “good life.”

If your independent movie has a chance to make about $250,000 worldwide over the course of a lifetime, it might behoove you to keep the budget for that particular project about a third of that or lower.  The Movie Business is a business, albeit an idiotic and incredibly limiting one, which I’ll explain more in another article.  But it can be incredibly rewarding and successful on many levels.  Just depends on what you define as success.  And how you’d like to share your work with the world.

HONOR AT THE CINEMATHEQUE

One of the most special nights (thus far) of my film career came when The American Cinematheque honored my film STUCK! with a special event premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The theatre itself is a glorious complex just down the block from the famous Chinese Theatre, which is another spectacular (albeit touristy) place for Hollywood premieres.

STUCK! is an homage to black and white women in prison films, and was filmed in the noir style as if it had been made in the 1950s or 60s.  It stars the late great Karen Black, John Waters muse Mink Stole, my muse Susan Traylor, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, CalArts alum and friend Stacy Cunningham, and newcomer Starina Johnson in the title role as the girl sent to Death Row.

Starina Johnson stars as "Daisy" in STUCK!
Starina Johnson stars as “Daisy” in STUCK!

I knew the American Cinematheque hosted events for Hollywood big-wigs and all the cinematic greats.  It was a total honor and pleasure to be included in that group, and be experiencing the event inside that very space and air.

I went to the Egyptian on the day before the premiere to set up a police line-up type of display (so fans could take their mugshots in front of it as if they’d just been “booked”).  I also taped posters to the entrance way.  Outstanding portraits of all the leading ladies on Death Row photographed by celebrity photographer Austin Young.

As an aside, the posters were printed at www.ShortrunPosters.com which is a top-secret place to get awesome posters made for $2 each.  The best part is that there is no minimum amount you can print.  You can just print 6 or 20 if you like.  You don’t have to print 1,000 (I have posters from the theatrical run of FIRECRACKER that I’m unlikely to ever get rid of).

I was asked if I wanted a full on red carpet type event, or something a little more casual.  I voted casual.  There’s something about a red carpet that’s fine and all, but I didn’t think hoards of fans and media would be turning up like they do for Brad Pitt.  I was mostly right, but surprised that when I arrived at the Egyptian the night of the premiere, there was a line of movie-goers stretching down the entire length of the Egyptian colonnade, out onto Hollywood Boulevard, around the corner and down the block.  There were so many people trying to get in that the guys at the Cinematheque told me we’d start the screening 30 mins later than planned so as to accommodate all these people.  It was wild.

In order to pass the time and keep people occupied, I was asked to go down in front and speak for a bit.  I froze.  What!?  I didn’t know what else to do than to take the microphone and walk out there.  When I saw the vastness of the theatre I was overwhelmed.  There had to be almost a thousand people in there.  I walked up in front, made eye contact with Karen Black and the rest of my cast sitting together in the front middle section.  I pretended they were the only ones I was speaking to.

I told the story about meeting screenwriter Frankie Krainz, the genius who created STUCK!  When Frankie and I met, I told him I’d love to make a women-in-prison film.  He said, “Oh, let me write it for you.”  I said, sure, and we went about the rest of our meeting.  Several weeks later Frankie called and said, “I’m done!”  And I replied, “With what?”  (I had no idea what he was talking about).  He sent me the script and I was floored.  It was so moving, poetic, and like a combination of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, only more to the point.  Reading it was hypnotizing.  And then I made it into a movie.

After the screening, which was a huge success—both technically (there were no audio/projection mishaps) and critically (everyone loved it), we went across the street for the VIP after-party and dinner at legendary Musso & Frank.  The owner of Musso’s had printed special menus for us, and Pleasant Gehman and Iris Berry (another punk rock royal) gave me a cake.  When I cut into it, the knife hit something hard.  I dug into it and discovered there was a huge file inside—perfect for use in escaping from prison!

It was such an amazing, special, incredible night.  As vivid in my memory today as if it happened last week.

Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood
Stacy Cunningham and Pleasant Gehman at the STUCK! premiere in Hollywood