Editing Notes

Sincere apologies for the absence of posts over the last couple weeks. Things have been even crazier than ever with round the clock editing, prepping for reshoots, and actually taking the time and energy to reshoot. Last week began with a couple of screenings of the rough cut. I was certainly at a point in the editing process where I wanted some fresh eyes on the film, and was eager to have some respected opinions weigh in. One such significant audience was Kate Sanford, the editor of HBO's Boardwalk Empire and The Wire.

Kate was generous enough to have us over to her editing suite at Steiner Studios where she watched the movie with us. She made us popcorn, grabbed a pen and some paper, and watched. Afterwards, she gave us incredibly positive feedback and some very helpful ideas for going further with it.

To my surprise, none of her notes were really technical, but rather character related. Her notes were subtle but very constructive. They were all things that could actually be refined and worked further. She didn't just simply raise issues with parts of the film, she suggested solutions, options, and specific opinions. One particular point she made that resonated with me was how a few subtle tweaks, additions, and/or omissions can have a huge effect on the story and characters. In editing, it is easy to have the urge to edit -- to do, to try, to work. Her angle was to think and to consider. Sounds easy, right? It is!

Thinking about the edit more broadly in terms of character and story can really liberate you from the distractions of the technical edit. I'm certainly finding this to be true now and I am plowing forward. Kate provided a much needed boost of energy. It has put me back in the mind-set I had when I was writing the screenplay, which is thoroughly refreshing. Having reflected on all this, it does seem pretty obvious. I'm sure the more seasoned filmmakers/editors out there are saying "Duh, Seth". But sometimes, people can give very broad notes and reactions that don't provide any constructive insight as to what you can actually do about it. Kate gave specifics and an approach to live by.

Obvious, here I come!

Who Wrote This Thing?

I can't see the forest for the trees. This initial assembly has me banging my head against the wall at times. I find I am battling my own judgement at every turn.

The first time I tackle the edit of a scene it tends to be with the mind-set of the scene and that scene alone. I tend to approach my scene edits like this: I sync the audio, and while doing so I get a feel and a reminder of what I shot and how many takes I have of each angle. After syncing, I usually pull up a PDF of the screenplay and revisit the words on the page as I go. I'll also usually watch one take of a wide shot or a "master" shot to get a feel for the overall flow.. From there I begin telling the story of the scene line by line. The first cut of a scene in the assembly process tends to be very "cutty". By that, I mean that almost each time a someone speaks, I cut to them or to a new shot. This is generally not a helpful editing approach, but at this point in the process I really need it. This is the only way I know for sure whether or not I have real options for how to shape a scene when I come back to it. So, sometimes I'll finish a scene and think, "That looks okay, but I can see that I have a world of options that will help me make it great down the road." Other times I'll finish a scene and think, "That was a pain in the ass to get through, and I really only had one option for each cut. Crap, this scene is as good as it's going to be and it's mediocre." (That last part is particularly true of scenes where there is not coverage, but only one long shot.)

Back to the issue of my own judgement. Each scene assembled ends with me loving or hating it. But the truth is, I can't rightly have any opinions yet. I am looking for the projected version of my film in the footage-- the best lines, the funniest looks, the slickest camera move, etc. That should be a fair approach except that these things have little to do with the final film as a whole. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not editing a whole bunch of short films, but one big film. These are all pieces of a greater whole whose edits need to be made based on the overall shape, not the overall quality of the vignettes. With a feature, the scenes cannot exist in a vacuum, only in context with the whole.

There's my problem. I still don't have a whole. In many ways, this first assembly is taking even more muscle than the original "Muscle Draft". Once I have a whole, I can let myself judge more freely. Then I can shape, mold, salvage, and  re-shoot (hopefully not, who's paying?). Easier said than done on suspending one's own judgement. I'm nothing if not judgement concentrate. Then again, this may all just be convenient logic to let me kick the can of worries into the next month of editing.

For now, I'm almost done with the first assembly. I'll be sure to report back any epiphanies or rashes that may break out.

 

Make Room for Creativity

****KICKSTARTER UPDATE**** Thanks to the overwhelming support of so many readers of this blog, Facebook, Twitter, and many more, we are on track to meet our funding goal tomorrow night at 11:03PM EST. The amazing thing is, people are still making pledges! The more the merrier, friends. Thank you!!!

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With Pre-Production underway, Kickstarter drawing to a close, and our start date set, I am now shifting gears a bit to get back into creative mode. I've had a running list of notes on the script that I've been waiting to address. Rather than changing things bit by bit as I go, I prefer to keep a tab of things and integrate them all at once. This way, I can see how everything is affected at once and give myself some serious time to consider any changes. Also, with new people being sent drafts all the time, I'd rather there only be a few new drafts after the first, just so I don't have to worry whether someone received a script dated April 10th or April 19th or April 20th, but rather just "revised" or "old".

This past weekend I set aside some time to begin the script-polishing process. I made my way through a web of neighborhood construction to a nearby coffee shop to get to work. This was my first revisit to the script after nearly four months from the initial draft, so I started with a timid polish of technical notes. I clarified locations, character descriptions, scene chronology...you know, the easy stuff that requires no creativity. Sitting in my local coffee shop, I was simply proofreading and tweaking with a cheat-sheet of things to integrate. Once that technical polish was done, I realized I had to get my creative hands dirty sooner or later.

Why was I so hesitant? Shouldn't I be excited to perfect, refine, and enhance my own work...especially if I thought it could benefit? I stared at my notes, a list of questions with no answers. I knew to some degree what needed to be done to certain scenes and character developments, but I was still  finding it so difficult to dive in.

The reason for all this heady hesitation, is that re-writing is so much more difficult than writing. In your initial state of writing a screenplay, there are no constraints. You can let your imagination run wild and write whatever you please. Free reign. However, in re-writes, you are slave to your own structure. If the adjustment isn't seamless with the rest of the script, than you have to iron out a wrinkle throughout the whole draft, ultimately changing the whole thing much more than you orginally wanted. Like that stupid construction in my neighborhood, you have to destroy something in order to fix it.

Off and on for the rest of this week, I am trying avoid any major construction (re-construction) and instead, I am trying to operate with finer tools. It's odd, a good day of writing for me is not necessarily a day where I've written that much. Rather, a good day of writing is one in which I am able to find any shred of certainty or clarity. I spend probably 80% of my writing time just looking at the script, reading a scene, visualizing it, judging it, and maybe, just maybe changing it. If I read a "problem scene" thirty times trying to fix it, and all I come away with is the reassurance that it's fine just as it is, that's a good writing session. At least know I'll know why something works.

So, like this I go, bit by bit. Still working. I'll let you know how I do!

Less is More or Less More

***KICKSTARTER UPDATE!***
Thank you to all of our supporters! With only 16 days left to go, we are already 64% of the way to our fundraising goal. But we still need your help! So, if you are reading this blog and want to continue reading this blog, just click on the Kickstarter link in the sidebar and support this movie! Every single dollar counts!
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[vimeo http://vimeo.com/22304735]
Independent filmmaker Edward Burns (Brothers McMullen, She's the One) recently posted the following info about his new film, "Newlyweds", on twitter:
"Newlyweds shooting budget. 5k for actors, 2k insurance, 2k food and drink. 9k in the can. That's how to make an indiefilm."
Amen to that, Ed. $9,000 for a feature-length film is remarkably low. The thing I find most impressive about his "mini-model" is his ability to stick to his guns. If you've been following WatchMeMakeaMovie for any length of time now, you'll know how I feel about the importance of indie filmmakers writing around resources they have at their disposal. If you have a dog, make a movie about your dog. If your parents have an amazing apartment, shoot a movie that takes place in that amazing apartment. But things have a tendency to change when you move into pre-production, more people come on board, more ideas come into your head about the script, and you begin to dream bigger than you originally had. It becomes a challenge to keep the movie within the confines of what you have available.
When  I wrote Passing Harold Blumenthal, I thought I had written something with deliberately flexible/cheap/free locations. After all, the feature was expanded from two different shorts I had already done where all our locations were free! But now, as my crew and I scout locations, I'm thinking, "Wow. I don't have any of these locations at my disposal! Why did I write myself into this headache?" We are now having to be extra savvy with where/how we seek out some of these locations. All the while, I'm going through potential rewrites in my head to circumvent the need for locations we couldn't possibly afford.
But I think there may be another, more optimistic way to look at this. If we do stick to what I wrote and manage to secure these few tricky locations, it will be a major win for our film. Huge production value will be added, and the world of the film will be fleshed out that much more. It's at least worth trying to have our cake and eat it, too. Especially if the end-result is some on-screen deliciousness.
To continue with the metaphor, I still don't want my eyes to be bigger than my stomach. I have a very clear idea of what I want this film to be in terms of scale and scope. Sticking to my guns on financial and logistical limitations shouldn't cost my movie an ounce of quality in the final cut. I suppose there never is a way until you find a way. Bravo, Mr. Burns.

Read-Through Review

Despite the sparse blog posts, the past week was incredibly busy and ultimately quite productive. Ironically, the more that's going on for the film, the less time there is to blog about it. I'd like to strike more of a balance with that going forward. I've already begun to look at outsourcing some future blog posts for when things get really crazy.

Last week began with a somewhat impromptu read-through of the script. I'd been wanting to hear it read aloud for some time, but kept putting it off for one reason or another. I was most likely procrastinating out of fear of hearing all the problems, inconsistencies, structural issues, etc., and then having to find time to sit down to fix them. I was especially nervous because I hadn't even looked at the screenplay since I started sending it out three months ago. I was so terrified I'd hear it and decide to scrap the whole project. What if it was awful? What if the pacing was slow? What if the plot was boring? Only one way to find out...

I invited over some actor friends, made a pot of coffee, sat back and listened to them read the screenplay from beginning to end. I took notes as they read and tried generally to get a sense of how things might play on-screen. While I found that some parts might need some polishing, things generally exceeded my expectations. The actors brought layers and color to the characters that I didn't realize were apparent on the page. They even had me laughing at things I hadn't necessarily intended to be funny.

The only things that managed to worry me upon revisiting the script were looming logistics. There are a couple of scenes/locations/props that I am certain will be an expense and/or pain in the butt to orchestrate for the film. I'm not making any cuts yet, but some scenes may have to be re-worked to suit what resources I actually have and not those that I wish I had. Speaking of which, does anyone out there have a huge empty theatre I can shoot in? Or maybe an acupuncturist I could borrow for a few hours? Anyone?

So, while I do have some writing work ahead of me before we go into production. I am pleased to report that the story has held up well. For the most part, at least. I found that it is in no need of repair, but rather could benefit from a few additions and integrations. No urgency, though. The script presents itself well as is, and I'll circle back to the writing in a few weeks time.

Do I Even Like Independent Film?

Over the past few months I've made a concerted effort to view as many contemporary low-budget independent films as possible. I've been doing this for a few years now, but since embarking on my own feature project, my rate of consumption has grown. Most of the movies  have either been financial or critical successes, but all were low-budget (sub $500k). Additionally, most of them have secured some form of distribution as I am able to rent them or see them in the theaters. I've also had the pleasure of watching a few that have not yet seen any distribution (maybe they will get it?). The idea here is to see what works with low-budget film. I'm interested to see what part of the low-budget hurts (or helps) our experience as an audience. There are a few questions I ask myself as I watch:

1. How does it look? - Did their lack of funds or fancy camera affect the overall picture quality?

2. How does it sound? - It's only a problem if I notice it.

3. Budget/Product Ratio - How good of a movie did they make despite their limitations? Do I like/respect this film more because of its low budget?

4. Is the story good? - Would anyone other than an aspiring indie filmmaker want to see this movie? Would they enjoy it?

The only real question that matters here is the last one. There is no escaping it. Without a strong, well-told story, no one cares. In fact, an audience will turn off your movie altogether. You can use the coolest new camera or gadget to make your film look expensive, but no one will notice it if your story is boring. Sadly, this is what I keep finding with most of what I've been watching.

I've got to ask: Do I even like independent film? I'm just not enjoying much of what's out there. I keep watching all of these "festival favorites" directed by the latest wunderkind or prodigy and I've started to feel like I'm missing the punchline to a joke. There are certainly exceptions, but in three months of watching low-budget movies there have been few that I've liked well enough to recommend to others. Most new indies seem so focused on having a "fresh" concept that it seems they opted for just that, concept. Story is secondary.

The good news is, I'm learning from these movies. I'm learning that in all the mayhem of trying to get a movie made, the story can easily get lost. If not lost, it often falls short of its potential. I'm learning that one can definitely make a movie for very little money if the ingredients and planning are there. But, the most important reminder I'm getting is to focus everything everything everything on the story, not the production value. If the story is strong, and if the story is served/supported technically, the production value will be there.

I'm eager to return to my screenplay. Much has percolated over the past few months and I have much that I want to develop  and refine in the script. I want to like independent film. More importantly, I want people to like my independent film.

Story isn't just the first part of the process, it's also the last. It's all an audience will care about after watching a (my) movie, so it better be good!

What's Your Movie About?

I talked about pitching in the Where Was I? post. Now that I am sharing my script and proposal to people, I'm getting fairly comfortable with describing my movie.

For Passing Harold Blumenthal, the pitch rests on a simple, clear synopsis for the story. I'm not just talking about pitching a movie to an investor. I'm also talking about casual conversation.There are many schools of thought on how much to say when describing your movie, but I feel strongly that if I can't describe my movie in a couple sentences at a cocktail party, then how is an audience member ever going to convince someone else to come and see the movie?

I only want to describe enough for someone to say, "Send me a script." I'm not working with high-concept material here, so I've chosen to focus on the inciting incident for the movie, the catalyst for action. I also want to give a clear sense of tone and say, "This is a comedy, you are welcome to laugh as needed."
So, when someone asks what Passing Harold Blumenthal is about, you can answer with...

 

Celebrated playwright, Harold Blumenthal, has passed away after succumbing to cardiac arrest while laughing at his own joke. Now, Harold’s estranged and jealous brother, Saul, must confront his personal hang-ups in order to deliver himself from an epic bout of constipation. Meanwhile, Saul’s wife Cheryl and son Ethan must grapple with their own personal obstacles through a set of circumstances so improbably comic, they might as well have been lifted from one of Harold’s plays.

 

What was I thinking? (Revisions and Inertia)

Brief Note - I have been surprised at how many of you are tuning in to Watch Me Make a Movie. I was not certain of any expectations when starting this blog a few weeks ago, but I am getting all sorts of signs that this is worthwhile. Thanks to everyone for reading. Please feel free to leave comments or email me directly if you ever want to chime in, give some of your own perspective, or ask questions. I love you peoples. Onto the post...

I have no real deadlines here beyond the ones I set for myself. I could easily work on this screenplay for many more months and then take even longer to get the funding, actors, and trimmings that would make this movie "perfect". The trouble is, by that point I would probably have lost all interest in this story.

I definitely benefit from taking time away from a script and then coming back to it with a fresh eye. But I could really do that forever; changing and revising. I find that the first stuff I wrote gets old the quickest, and by the time I've revised all of that, I am looking at the latter-written parts and, all of a sudden, they too look tired. And so goes the cycle.

Things have to keep moving forward in this process. If the progress stops, this project dies and the movie is never made. Yes, there is a great deal of thought, calculation and planning that should go into something like this, but the spirit of good filmmaking, I think, lies in a certain spontaneity. Some degree of impulsiveness is what lights a fire and gets things done. At least that's true for me. It's like sitting on the couch with friends and someone having the great idea to go to the grocery store, buy lots of food and drink and inviting everyone you know to come over for a barbecue. It's a great idea, but if no one gets off the damn couch within the next ten minutes, you'll all just end up sitting there for the rest of the night watching bad TV.  Unfortunately, this is also true of bad ideas, like streaking or robbing a bank.

This round of revisions will be it  for a while. Onwards and upwards.