CRITICS: USE THEM OR LOSE THEM

Maybe I had it good going to CalArts, because when it came time for a critique of any work (whether it was a script, or a film, or a photograph), we were educated in a way to look at the work that is totally NOT what most people learn.  In addition to style, form, and technique, we were taught to explore the intent of the creator, and to base our critique on how we felt that intent was communicated.  Did the work communicate the intent clearly?  Or was it confusing?

Most people grow up learning that to critique something means to only draw out the negative aspects of something.  Or to talk about what’s missing.  No one is ever taught to look at what’s actually there and critique what they see.  Instead, most people use critique to talk about what they don’t see.  This has spread to our entire culture.  When someone says, “Sorry I’m being critical,” they mean they’re sorry because they are being negative.  If you’re doing it correctly, critique isn’t something to apologize for.  It can become very helpful and beneficial.  But most often, people are bad critics.

Most people—professionals and amateur—have been taught that the best way to critique something is to discuss what is WRONG or what is MISSING.  Or, in most cases, how they’d have done it better.  That kind of criticism is useless because the truth is that if we look at anything long enough we can find what is wrong with it, and what is missing.

Let’s take Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, now listed by The British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine as the greatest film of all time (replacing Citizen Kane.  Someone could say that the sequences in the museum, or when Jimmy Stewart is following around Kim Novak, are boring and need work because there’s no dialogue.  But to focus on the fact that there isn’t dialogue, and wrong, that critic fails to see what is there, and he misses the whole point.

The critique in that case might be a bit melodramatic, but I mean it to only illustrate a point.  I’m sure there are people out there who watch VERTIGO and feel the exact same thing (it’s boring, it’s too quiet, there’s no talking; so it must be BAD), even though they are watching what is now considered the greatest film ever made.

When I get a review from a critic, I like to learn about how they SEE what I’ve shown them.  I don’t particularly have an interest in what I haven’t shown them.  If I made a heavy, dark character-study, I’d like to learn more about how they were impacted by that, or what was their insight into how I portrayed those elements.  If I read a review that says it’s a bad movie because it’s not campy or funny, that doesn’t help me at all.  Sure, it relays the message that particular individual is only interested in campy, funny movies, and if I want him to like something it should be campy and funny.  But it doesn’t help me learn about multiple perspectives of the heavy, depressing, character-study.

Now, say my intent was to make a heavy, dark character-study and it ended up campy and funny, and the critic thought it was hilarious, well that would indicate that my execution was done poorly.  And, in that case, the criticism would be very educational and helpful.  But, helpful critique is very rare.

Another thing to remember about criticism is that it’s only about that person’s singular viewpoint and their tastes.  If a critic doesn’t like westerns, he’s not going to like your western no matter how brilliant it is.  Or, if he only likes westerns, he’s not going to be a fan of your Upper West Side romantic comedy.  So when you read a review from a critic, remember that there will always be someone, somewhere, who’s experience watching it was the opposite.

I love reading reviews of my movies that are totally contradictory of each other.  Take my film, THE CASSEROLE CLUB, which is out now on DVD/VOD.  Some critics call it a “masterpiece,” an “emotional tour de force,” and we’ve even won awards for it: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Backstreet Boys crooner Kevin Richardson in his debut role) and Best Actress (for Susan Traylor).  And then there are the reviews that say the acting is “horrible” and the movie a “waste of time.”  And after reading the negative reviews, I received the news that the US Library of Congress selected THE CASSEROLE CLUB for their permanent collection.

It’s so fascinating to me to learn how differently people see the very same thing.  I love stuff like that.

As you proceed in your filmmaking path, whether as a director, producer, writer or actor, you’ll find this truth across the board in all aspects of The Industry.  One person will always love something another person hates.  Yin/Yang.  So enjoy it.  If nothing else, it will teach you who are the intelligent people to surround yourself with, and who are the dumb shits to avoid.

CASTING: JUST LIKE COOKING

Casting and crewing a movie is the most challenging aspect of making a movie, and one that many directors and producers should reevaluate.  By casting and crewing your movie correctly, you can avoid having conflicts on the set, maintain a healthy atmosphere, and construct a positive environment in which everyone can thrive.

When I’m casting or crewing a movie, I think of it like cooking.  The movie is the dish we’re about to make, and each element that goes into making that dish becomes an ingredient.  Different locations, props, costumes, and people, each have their own unique color, flavor, energy, and thus each has a unique ingredient.  Like saffron, ginger, or cucumber.

I think it’s very important to make sure that all the ingredients work well together, both on screen and off.  If everyone enjoys being around each other, the atmosphere will be free of conflict.  And if any conflict arises, people who enjoy each other tend to handle conflict in a healthy, mature way.

So, think of people like food.  Try it.  Go on.

Pick someone you know and imagine what kind of ingredient would they be.  Are they volatile, or spicy, like, say, cayenne?  Are they sweet and rounded, and ordinary, like, say, a Granny Smith apple?  Would you pair them up together in the same recipe?  And if so, how would you do it?  Or, what other ingredients would be needed in order for the right balance to happen?  Or, if you picked the Granny Smith apple person, is there another contender who embodies an ingredient that might work better?

Sometimes this is very difficult to explain to other producers, actors, and directors.  Especially those who have been programmed into doing it the traditional way.  But, I’m telling you, this works.  It’s about understanding chemistry and really understanding a person.  It’s possible even to understand it, and use this information, without ever being in the same room with the person.  It’s also very handy tool to use when casting people together that need certain chemistry.

Some people use astrology in a similar way.  I understand that for the most part, people might not like this because it’s stereotyping.  Fitting everyone else into a box.  But, so long as it keeps working, I don’t care.  The goal is to cast and crew a movie, and to end up with a group of people who get along and shine on screen.

Even if a person is the best in their field, or the greatest performer, they might not be right for the particular dish we’re assembling.  It’s incredibly important to select the right combination of people to create the ideal environment off screen as much as on screen.  When people are living together in such close proximity to each other, and work and play morph together, it is imperative that each personality work well together—like creating the perfect recipe—each ingredient matters or could throw off the whole thing.

Would you rather be working for three weeks with a bunch of talented people who hate each other, or a bunch of talented people who enjoy each other?

In addition to taking a look at someone’s skills and talent, it’s also a good idea to look at how they see the world; interact with others, and how their unique ingredient might give flavor to the ultimate dish.

Ponder your own combinations.

Figs go well on their own, with fresh crisp foods, and even meat but I wouldn’t eat a bulb of garlic at the same time.  Some might, though.  That’s fine.

Got a fresh peach, or a plum, and a bossy steak?  Try them together, the fruit works surprisingly well on top of the steak.

Roasted beets taste like sweet corn, which is also great with arugula.  But I’d avoid pairing them up with gummy worms.

BE STRATEGIC, PATIENT

I know that when you’re filming your movie, you’re excited and want to share that excitement with your friends on various social networking sites.  But think twice about posting photos too soon.  Movies take a long time to complete, and in this world of “now, now, now” you might be shooting yourself in the foot by posting things prematurely.

Think of it backwards.  When your movie is about to premiere at a festival, you’ll want to publicize it and get people to go see it.  So, naturally, you’ll want a website and a press kit, photos and such, and a trailer for people to see.  This will get them excited about the film and hopefully they’ll want to see it.  So, I’d suggest launching the trailer for your movie about a month prior to that first screening.

Backing up from there, a month or so before that trailer launch, you’ll want some kind of web presence to showcase some photos and information for festivals.  Maybe you’ll already have a trailer, but my advice is to keep it hidden from the general public.  A password protected Vimeo or unlisted YouTube page work well.

But, before you can submit your movie to festivals, buyers and critics, you’ll have to complete the final sound mix, score it, and do the color timing.  All of those things take time.  Some of those can be done quicker than others if you’re paying top dollar.  But if you’re paying less, it might take four to five months to complete post-production.

Think of it from the audience’s point of view.  When you see a trailer for a movie, and it says “coming soon” at the end, do you expect that to be in a few weeks, a few months, or a couple years?  Ask yourself if it’s a year later, will you still be interested in seeing that movie?  Will you even remember it?

It’s very important to tell your actors, crew, and friends, that when you’re filming your project, it might be the best idea to WAIT and not post any photos or news about the film until after it’s totally complete.

That first premiere screening very well might be—at the earliest—an entire calendar year away.  And most likely the release of that project will be the following year.

I made this mistake when promoting my film FIRECRACKER.  We filmed it in 2003 and couldn’t find distribution for a long time.  I had to invent a way to keep hooking the audience that was already generated, to keep them interested until it came out.  So, first I made a behind-the-scenes documentary (WAMEGO: Making Movies Anywhere).  I released that and used it as a promotional tool for the film, without giving anything about the movie away.

FIRECRACKER was based on a true story, so I gathered up all my research and figured out a way to showcase bits of information on a monthly basis via a “True Story Investigation” section of the website.  This would help pacify the fans who were there already, and would hook new ones.  Without those monthly updates, we likely would’ve started to lose our audience, as they slowly lost interest before the film was eventually released.

It was fun to do all that, but it was a full-time job.  It’s much easier to be strategic with your marketing and wait until the movie will be ready for people to see.  If you tell them about it too soon, you might lose them by the time it’s released.

So take all the photos you want, and make all the behind the scenes clips you can!  But, just be careful about making them public too soon.  Because coming up with a really great idea to maintain awareness of your project to last the next two years can be tough.

TRUTH ABOUT THE IMDB

Comrades, did you know Amazon owns the Internet Movie Database (imdb)?  Did you know that anyone, anywhere, can add inaccurate information to a cast or crew list, and no one can do anything about it?  Did you know that the “star meter” ranking system has nothing to do with you, but rather the count for the films you have starred in?

Look at the full credits list for my film FIRECRACKER.  There are half dozen people on that list that I’ve never heard of.  None of those strangers actually worked on the film.  But there they are.  Clear as day for anyone who uses the imdb as a resource.

The imdb is not like Wikipedia, in that there are no officers patrolling the incoming data.

Try it.  Add yourself as the 2nd grip for a Sharon Stone movie.  Chances are it’ll be added.  Then take a screen shot to “prove” you worked on a Sharon Stone movie.  Now people will hire you.  I wonder how long it’ll take someone from the Sharon Stone movie to notice that inaccurate credit and ask for its removal.  Maybe never.  And if they do request it, will someone at imdb or Amazon really care?  Probably not.

Yet the Industry uses the imdb as if it were the end-all be-all of factual data—even if they change that data to suit themselves.

Then explore the “message boards” with comments from anonymous posters.  It’s like a bathroom wall in an urban high school.  Thank god for sites like imdb parent Amazon for making message board posters use their real name or screen name, and keeping track of lunatics.  The imdb doesn’t do this.  So you can sign in as a fake name and write something to praise or spoil your competition, or ex boyfriend, or ex boss, and no one can do anything about it.

Did you know that?

The imdb is a great resource for finding out the name of that movie so-and-so starred in; that you know you’ve seen or heard about, but just can’t remember what it was.  It’s also a great resource for discovering new movies featuring actors you like to watch.  Maybe you’re an aspiring filmmaker who has recently discovered an actor who inspires you, and now you want to watch all their movies.  The imdb is a great place to start.