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.

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)

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.