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

FILM WEATHER

Unless I’m on a beach wading in perfectly clear seawater, the ideal temperature for me to exist in is 65 degrees F (that’s 18C for everyone else on the planet except the USA).  I keep interior temps at 65F all year long.  I sleep better, think better, and create better.  But, there are times when I can’t control the climate.  So before scheduling a movie shoot, it’s always best to consider where you’re going to shoot and what the temperature will be.

Dennis Hopper once told me it’s better to shoot in sweltering heat than it is to shoot in bitterly cold.  He was right.  It wasn’t until my first winter shoot that I realized how debilitating it is to shoot a movie in cold weather.

When the temps get cold enough, and the wind chill kicks in, it can be beyond miserable.  In addition it can be dangerous.  Frostbite is a concern.  It’s really hard to operate cameras and things with huge padded gloves.  Imagine being an actor, trying to compose yourself and stay in character when your body starts involuntarily shaking.  Or what about the blood draining from your face and leaving your nose bright red and cheeks pale?  These are problems that one must deal with when shooting in the cold.

There are some dangers when shooting a movie in the heat.  People are at risk for heat stroke and the sort.  But, tolerating the temperature impact on your body is manageable.  It’s easier to provide water to people, make sure everyone stays in the shade whenever possible, and avoid heat exhaustion.  Sometimes it happens, of course, and usually when the heat index is higher than normal (this is like a wind chill but reverse).

I’ve filmed many movies in warm temps.  My first film PEP SQUAD was produced in the humid Kansas July and August.  It was disgusting.  Actors make-up sliding down faces, and several people on the crew just smelled bad.

STUCK! was even worse.  Filmed during early summer in Macon, Georgia, where the humidity is so thick you can cut it and put it on a piece of toast.  The place we filmed the jail cells was on the second floor of a building with no air conditioning.  The owners refused to open the windows at night to cool it down for us.  So we had to work in miserable conditions.  Visually it looked great: everyone a little shiny with sweat and the contrast in B&W worked out in our favor.

During CASSEROLE CLUB we filmed in Palm Springs, and I made sure the air conditioning ran throughout the shoot.  Some people have the belief you should shut all the appliances off, or turn off the AC when you shoot.  That makes no sense to me, because you’ll just add room noise back in later.  It’s super easy to match the frequency of the room noise and air nowadays.  Maybe back in the day this was harder.  Anyway, I’ve never worried about shutting off the AC or Heat.  Or unplugging the fridge.

Likewise, think about other factors such as: is it hurricane season?  Tornado season?  Rainy season?  Dry season?  Allergy season?  How many hours of daylight versus night will you have?  In real life, it would always be ideal to live and work in an environment steady at 65F.  So think about that when you get ready to shoot your next movie.

DENNIS HOPPER’S HOUSE

Pulling up to his compound on a side-street in Venice Beach, California, not far from the beach, I was struck by the surreal corrugated metal façade.  If I hadn’t known he lived there, it would make sense that someone offbeat did.  And the white picket fence out front, planted firmly with tongue in cheek, was the perfect touch.

My dad, Clark, was with me.  We were ushered in the front door and navigated a seemingly endless row of classic cars, luxury cars and more cars.  At the end of the parking area we climbed a flight of stairs that was open to the second floor, with an enormous ceiling probably 20 feet high.  As we climbed it became brighter and brighter, and I took notice of the original Warhols, Basquiats, and other incredible pieces of modern art.  (Later I would learn that his collection was vast, valued at $10 million.)

My favorite lesson was finding out Dennis shot two bullet holes through an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong.  And, instead of Warhol freaking out about it, he called Hopper “a collaborator.”

At the top of the staircase I was surprised at how plain his house was.  Just one big space with dining area on one side and sitting area on the next, kitchen beyond, and a doorway to the bedrooms.  Hopper’s then wife Victoria was in the kitchen and greeted us as Hopper came in from the back wearing sweats and a hoodie.

I’d brought him a gift.  A coffee table book of photographs called BACKYARD VISIONARIES.  Dennis grew up in Kansas, down the street from my grandmother’s home in Dodge City.  He loved the book.

The first thing he told us was that he thought FIRECRACKER was one of the best scripts he’d ever read.  I presented him with my storyboards of every shot of the entire film.  He carefully read it, commenting how amazing this film would be.

He proposed coming to Kansas for five days to play the character FRANK, and then we settled back and spoke about life and other interests.  Dennis had been in negotiations with Lehman Brothers (the former global financial services firm) to produce 10 feature films for $10 million each.  Lehman would bankroll the venture for $100 million and Hopper would be in charge of the slate.  Hopper asked if we could use FIRECRACKER as the first of these projects.  I was over the moon.  “Of course we could,” I said.  And we shook hands.

(Eventually the Lehman deal fell through.  Lehman changed their offer to Hopper and said they only wanted to put up $50 million, telling Hopper he had to come up with the other $50 million.  He told them to forget it.)

At some point during the discussion Victoria turned on the television and we watched in horror as reports came in that the Concorde had crashed on take off in France.  My sister and I had flown the Concorde back from the Cannes Film festival when my film PEP SQUAD had premiered.  We talked about how incredibly small it was inside and how anyone over six feet tall couldn’t stand up straight walking down the aisle.

Dennis Hopper was a fascinating man and a super nice guy.  He was complimentary of my work and gave me some damn good advice.  It’s a shame we didn’t have the chance to work together before he became ill.  When I learned of his passing, I took a moment to remember the Backyard Visionary he was when he started out making art and movies, and I smiled.

Dennis Hopper's house

Dennis Hopper’s house

NEED STARS?

A question a lot of aspiring filmmakers face is whether or not to cast movie stars.  Do movie stars help your film get funding?  Do stars mean you’ll get a solid distribution deal?  Does it mean your film will be successful?  I’m here today to tell you that it’s all a myth, and it doesn’t matter a bit.  Nope.  Not at all.

Certain people in the Industry will tell you that it’s totally necessary to have a movie star in your movie.  If it’s a distributor telling you, chances are their motivation truly stems from laziness.  If there’s a star in your movie, they don’t have to work hard to sell your movie.  In fact, it won’t matter what your movie is about, because they’ll just pitch it to buyers as a “so-and-so” picture.

If it’s an Industry executive looking to produce your movie, they’ll say it’s important because it looks good on their resume if they worked with “so-and-so” instead of someone they’ve never heard of.  Aspiring actors will do the same.  Some actors will even showcase that famous person in their reels in hopes to appear more qualified than they actually are.  Tricking directors into thinking “Wow, she starred with Julia Roberts, she MUST be important.”

Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether there are stars in your film or not.

My first film PEP SQUAD has no stars in it.  Yet, it was acclaimed, and then sold and released in nearly every country on Planet Earth.  In fact, there was a 10-year anniversary re-release on Blu-ray in 2011.

When searching for investors on my second film, one of the actors cast was Dennis Hopper.  Surprisingly, even with Dennis Hopper attached, we couldn’t find funding in order to make it.  I ended up replacing him with the musician Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle), and suddenly we had funding.

My film WATCH OUT had a few people in it that were in recognizable projects (Peter Stickles from Shortbus, for example), but none of them were “stars” per se, and when that film came out, it debuted at number 27 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

And then there’s Mink Stole, Karen Black, Pleasant Gehman and Jane Wiedlin in a women in prison movie—together!  (My film STUCK!)  I mean, one would think that would be an easy sell, right?  Well, it didn’t sell as well as PEP SQUAD or WATCH OUT.  But it was a B&W film with homage to 1950s style filmmaking, and some people didn’t get it on a commercial level.

So, you see, it doesn’t matter who’s in your movie.  What matters is that your movie is well made with a captivating story and solid performers.  We’ve all seen movies we love with a cast of no one we recognize.

Remember that when casting your next film.  Stars don’t always bring in money.  But they can sometimes cost a lot of it.

STORYBOARDS

You don’t need to have elaborately sketched storyboards in full color with photo realistic details, but it is a good idea to have something planned and sketched.

I learned how to make storyboards before shooting something out of instinct, but there are a lot of filmmakers who have used the process in history.  Hitchcock is well-known for his storyboards—which were elaborately crafted and stunning in their own right.

Hitchcock storyboards for The Birds

When I made the storyboards for my film FIRECRACKER it took me weeks, and I did craft them with elaborately drawn details.  Partly because I wanted to communicate to the actors and crew exactly what each frame would look like.  When you are communicating something visually, it’s very important to show what it is you’re saying, in addition to saying it verbally.  Just saying we’ll shoot a “close up on that actress” can mean virtually endless options, taken from any angle, anywhere.  Do you mean profile, back of the head, face, three quarter turn?  Draw it.  Then we’ll know what you mean.

Again, your storyboards don’t have to be pretty.  It helps when they are, but the purpose of a storyboard isn’t much different than a screenplay.  They are merely means to communicate to whomever you are showing, what you’re about to do.  Sometimes, they aren’t meant to be shown to anyone.

When I draw storyboards, they’re for me to see and not really anyone else.  Of course, if someone wanted to see them, they can.  But the sole purpose is so that when I get to the set, I know exactly what I need to shoot, where, and how.

Storyboards from my film The Far Flung Star

They can be stick figures, crappy drawings, anything.  It doesn’t matter.  Are you making fancy cartoons and publishing high-quality graphic novels?  No, you’re making storyboards for your movie.  Keep in check.

When I’m sketching storyboards for a scene, I plan on sketches for an entire scene taking up only one sheet of paper.  I write the scene number on the top of each page, and once the Master Plan is complete, I can organize the pages of storyboard sheets behind each day of the schedule.  So all my shots are there for quick reference each day.

Dennis Hopper and I talked about this at length in his living room.  He felt that making storyboards was a great way to plan the vision of a scene, but that once you got on the set and the characters came to life, sometimes it could hurt to rely so coldly on the storyboards.  Especially if there was some kind of magic happening outside of the planning.  I agreed.

It’s a very good idea to do storyboards, even if you never refer to them.  I like doing them because I know that so long as I accomplish capturing those things, we’re golden.  Say you’re up until 3 AM dealing with a diva actor who needs babying, and you get little sleep, and the next day you show up on set feeling like a zombie and have no idea what to do.  This has never happened to me, but it has to a lot of filmmakers I know.  In that moment, so long as you’re prepared and organized, you’ll be able to make it through your day on auto-pilot.  So, plan something, even if it’s the bare minimum.

And be free.  Give yourself the freedom to capture something you hadn’t thought of before.  Actors will do certain things that inspire new shots, new angles.  If you get to the set and are inspired by the lighting, or architecture, or atmosphere, give yourself the freedom to scrap the planned storyboards and capture something new and in-the-moment.