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Last week, I greatly enjoyed my first three days on the job at Fandor– and anticipating all the ones still to come. It’s funny how timing works sometimes… It couldn’t be a better time for me to learn and engage in something new. And it’s remarkable how sometimes somethings end, just as something new begins. Such changes and coordination need so much support, it is a marvel that so much still gets done.
Ten years ago, [...]
I think many times, in telling our stories our desire exceeds our abilities, even when our talent is up to the task. How do you know when you are truly ready? What do you need to know?
Ira Sachs has a new film in the theaters this week, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON, and addressed this issue for the WGA Blog. He kindly offered to let us repost it here.
by Ira Sachs
It took me nearly 25 years to finally feel ready to write a film about New York. My first job in the city was the summer of 1984, when I was the assistant to Eric Bogosian at his office down on Mott Street, and I moved to the city full-time in 1988. When I started writing feature films, my mind and imagination were still rooted in Memphis, where I had grown up, and where I’d made my first two features, The Delta and Forty Shades of Blue. I lived in NYC, but it was my hometown that I knew from the inside. For me to feel ready to make a film about a place, I need both intimacy and distance. The intimacy with this city came over time, with the creation of memories; the distance came much more slowly.
In many ways, New York grabbed me too hard for me to be able to step outside and look at my life with any clarity. [...]
I watch a lot of films. I think I watch about 250 a year. I also watch a lot of films that never come out, that most audiences never get access to.
I learn a great deal from the “noble failures”, the films that have ambition but just miss the mark fully in execution. I honestly like these films and find pleasure in watching them, but I also know that most people like their entertainment and culture to be in a more perfectly realized state — even if most of us don’t have the resources to bring our work to that state. I think most people’s taste is shaped by their training; we learn to like what we get — unfortunately.
Yet I also think there are some things that [...]
By Ben York Jones
It’s hard to describe to someone what your role was as co-writer, on a movie they read in the New York Times, “Was Filmed Without a Script.” There’s no succinct answer. I couldn’t Tweet a properly inclusive explanation. Well, I tried. This was after I received a Tweet that seemed to accuse me and by association, my co-writer (the film’s very talented director, Drake Doremus) of self-aggrandizing – for awarding ourselves writing credit on a reportedly script-less film. I remember feeling dismissed. Frustrated. Worse yet, I began seriously doubting my abilities when I read the offending Tweet:
“Is it true the dialogue was all improvised on Like Crazy? That’s the word on the street…”
Alright, so it wasn’t as bad as I remember. Actually, they’d heard correct. But when it’s late, and you just lost that one seminal gig, and the Times chose the sub-heading, “What Writer?” to describe a film you poured so much into… you start to question your value. I had to publish my own headline. I had to describe to this stranger, in 140 characters or less, exactly what it meant to write an improvised film. And I would make those 140 characters (or less) shine! If it took all night! I replied 5 minutes later:
“The actors worked from a very detailed “scriptment” written in prose. On set, they were asked to put things in their own words.”
Well… Not exactly dazzling as far as headlines go, and no points for a lack of alliteration, but at least it was a little more accurate.
I vividly remember seeing Christopher Guest’s film Waiting For Guffman for the first time in junior high. Noted for being improvised, there was something so organic and honest about that film. It was unlike any comedy I had seen. The characters were so complete, and at the same time completely unaware of themselves, as was the camera. Intimate, but objective – Guest trusted an expression, an inflection, or silence to do the talking. Around this time, because the guys on the VHS jacket looked so weird, I rented and watched American Movie. To this day, it is my favorite film. I didn’t think I was interested in documentaries at that time, but what struck me like no narrative film had before, was the pencil-line it danced between it’s highs and lows. It was at once the funniest film I’d ever seen, and one of the more tragic. This is real, I thought. This is visceral. This is the human condition. I knew then, documentary or not, this was the affect a film should have. Finding a parallel in Guffman was kind of a personal mini-revelation. Things clicked. This is how it translates to a narrative.
After establishing the specifics were going to be improvised, writing Like Crazy was like giving driving directions to someone by landmark (it’s by this one tree… you’ll know it when you see it) rather than street names. As it was to be a movie largely built on moments between moments, we decided what would be important to communicate was not what the characters should say, but what they should withhold. This lead to the good stuff – back-story and inner monologue found it’s way onto the page to accompany the action. We also included music cues; most didn’t end up in the film, but I think helped set the tone. And every once in a while we suggested some dialogue, but it was only ever suggested. It was always Drake’s intention to provide the cast with plenty of space to discover on set. To capture them truly listening and responding. It was for this reason he wisely made certain they fell just short of finding the scenes in rehearsal. At a very dense 50-pages, the script read more like a short story with scene headings. And like any screenplay it had required many drafts and jam sessions with our producers, right up to production in order to get it there. Actually the revisions never stop. They just sort of peter-out for one person, then change hands – now it’s up to the cast… now it’s up to the editor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the film’s editor, Jonathan Alberts.
As it turns out, when you ask your cast to improvise, you’re also asking the crew to adjust accordingly. A focus-puller’s task, for example, becomes a lot more demanding when the actors have no marks to hit. Several of us in key roles had had some experience with this improvised process on our previous film, a lo-fi comedy called Douchebag. But it’s fair to say we approached that far more casually. Almost as an experiment, the result of which was a great deal of trial and error, and re-shoots, and pick-ups that included adding scenes to fill gaps. The stakes were higher on Like Crazy. It had to pack some serious punch and deliver across the boards, first time out. Fortunately, the synergy was right, the phenomenal cast was brave and trusting of their director, and it came together.
It’s widely acknowledged, a film is written three times: On the page, on set, and in the cutting room. This adage is never more appropriate than in reference to an improvised film. And as I’ve branched out to develop more traditional screenplays with new collaborators, I find them pleasantly surprised by my eagerness to work with fitting ideas thrown my way. Provided everyone’s going the same direction, the improvisers mantra: “Yes, and…” applies here too.
Ultimately, writing film’s that are to be improvised has taught me to see the pages of a screenplay for what they are: a work-in-progress. I don’t aim to negate the artistry and impact of well-written dialogue. I just mean to say, embracing this idea reminds me that as a screenwriter, my method of delivery is not a bound tome, but a living, breathing cast and crew.
An improvised film has many writers. And if there is trust, it’s amazing to see how they may bring your concepts to life – often in surprising and wonderful ways.
Ben York Jones was born in Englewood, New Jersey, but grew up primarily in Southern California. Both of his parents were New York stage actors, exposing him to a variety of art forms from an early age. After studying screenwriting and directing at Chapman University, Jones worked as a video artist, notably directing music videos and creating branded content. Having maintaining a passion for performance based arts, Jones has appeared in a numerous theatrical productions and is an avid fan of improvisation and sketch comedy. Douchebag marked his first leading role in a feature film, and reunited Jones with childhood friend and collaborator, Drake Doremus. In January 2010, Douchebag premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition. The Hollywood Reporter and New York Magazine praised Jones’ performance, and the film was released theatrically in October 2010.
Having shifted his primary focus to writing, Jones has recently co-written the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Like Crazy. The film hits theaters in the fall of 2011. Jones is currently underway on several projects including the screen adaptation of a soon to be released novel, and his third collaboration with Doremus and producer Jonathan Schwartz in as many years.
People like to get credit for their work, but have they been getting the right credit for it? Are we able to recognize when something is a collaboration as opposed to a work of an individual who has hired a team to execute it?
I pride myself on having produced films that could only have been the product of the unique vision of the director. That said, I have had a front row seat on how culture in general has been drifting and leaping into something more collaborative and think it just may represent the end of an era.
One of my early jobs in the film business was working as a Script Analyst for many of the NYC-based film production companies. I was always impressed by how many seemingly unique ideas were shared by many writers. There was a month way back when when I read five scripts all featuring dwarf bowling (okay, so some of the companies I read for were schlock producers, but you get the general idea). It became clear that we all harvest our information from similar sources and process it in not-so-unique manners. If all we are doing is acting as a filter, does it make sense to claim authorship still?
I was impressed with James Gunn, the director of SUPER, when he specified that “A Film By” credit would be false due to the collective efforts of all those involved. SUPER is very much “A James Gunn Movie” though, as that credit is more of a brand — if you know James Gunn, you know what you want to expect from “A James Gunn Movie”. Utilizing a brand is a much different thing than claiming authorship. Brands do help filter content for audiences. False authorship confuses things for communities everywhere.
I was similarly impressed — moved actually — when years ago I watched OUR SONG, Jim McKay’s great film following three girls growing up in Brooklyn (and Kerry Washington’s first role). In the opening credits, the “Film By” credit comes up, and then everyone who contributed to the film is credited. Nonetheless, having now recognized how unique McKay’s work is (particularly here in America), it would not have been wrong to call it “A Jim McKay Film”.
With such a collaborative culture at work, it would be wrong to claim most ideas as my own, or even of a single author. I was heartened to see this recognition in Megan Garber’s Neiman Lab response to Gabler’s NYT Sunday Mag article last month “The Elusive Big Idea“. It still surprises me how much our culture and media industry wants to promote egotism. I do not believe that credit grabs motivate creative thinking and such see no logical reason to hang onto false credits. In fact, it is the false credits that most reveal both the egotism and lack of creative thinking. With only one exception, can I think of any time that a credit discussion I engaged in was warranted (even if even then what was done was counter to industry-standard). But I digress…
“Increasingly, though, the ideas that spark progress are collective, diffusive endeavors rather than the result (to the extent they ever were) of individual inspiration. Ideas increasingly resist branding. The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are. Increasingly, the ultimate upshot of the Big Idea — the changed world, the bettered world — is bypassing the idea stage altogether. As we build new tools and, with them, a new environment, blueprints are byproducts rather than guideposts. We’re playing progress, increasingly, by ear. And, in the process, we’re becoming less self-conscious about change itself — and about our role in effecting it.”
I truly admire how this column and others like it have become community soap boxes to discuss the state of our industry and culture, to call attention to issues and options, and hopefully find some solutions. The plight of the independent filmmaker has progressed to the evolution of a truly free film community, and we are building it better together. The spirit of the collective endeavor is raging stronger every day and the results of this change of action and focus are shining brightly.
As much as I was inspired to work in what I saw as the art form and medium that best defined contemporary existence, that inspiration came from those works of the great film auteurs. As difficult as it is to maintain this practice, I am inspired to keep pushing forward to help find some solutions by the commitment, labor, knowledge, and generosity displayed by the COMMUNITY on a general basis. Let’s keep it up and lift it up to all that this culture and industry can truly be.
Beautiful stories will be written by gifted individuals. Our greatest movies will be helmed by unique and committed visionaries. But neither is all that our world needs or even wants these days. In this time of superabundance and open access, it is the shared endeavor of communities that give to the culture they want, share what they love, and contribute to the efforts of many, that will carry us through to a better future. We are on our way and can not shy away from the hard work ahead of us, even if we do not receive credit for it.Tweet