Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anyone Can Cook

Earlier this year, a friend of mine bought an expensive High Definition Video camera. He had saved up for it for a long time. In stead he could have bought a second hand Subaru. But he doesn't care he doesn't have a car. He has a dream. The Australian Dream.

Australia is a hands-on type of nation. When I arrived in 2001, it didn't take me long to get my first short film off the ground. So many wonderful people, eager to get their hands dirty and help me out. After all, filmmaking doesn't have to be the cumbersome, expensive art it used to be. In a way it is still cumbersome but the essentials to capture and reproduce images have become so cheap they are now within reach of anyone with a job or a credit card.

The largest short film festival in the world started in Sydney. Meanwhile Tropfest has spilled out to all major Australian cities and even the rest of the world . The fact it started here in Australia is no coincidence. When an Australian wants to do something, he doesn't first sit down to ponder about how it is usually done and then wait for an opportunity to arise so the job gets a bit easier. The Australian goes for it. ASAP.

You can hear me coming: despite all the good intentions there is a downside to this "let's just do it" attitude. In the case of filmmaking, I cannot shed the impression the Australian believes there are shortcuts. What is the easiest way to get your idea on the screen? You hire or buy a video camera, get some mates to stand in front of it and "just do it". We are all made to believe this is how it works. Practical guides to the use of digital equipment make it seem like child's play.

It is an illusion that has cost us dearly in recent years. I have seen a fair few movies lately that were all made with lots of enthusiasm but not a lot of thought gone into the screenplay. What is it with movies that people just cannot stop believing the illusion? At this point I must add that what sets my friend with the HD camera apart from the crowd, is this: he had first invested a significant amount of money in learning the craft of screenwriting.


Only yesterday I received an email from which I quote:

"I have about 3 ideas for scripts, they would be produced entirely by my friends and I. I need to put the first drafts down I am trying to round up a script writing program to make it easier."

There is the other myth: Final Draft will help you write your script. (On a separate note: soon that myth may be forever buried, when Celtx takes over. They have just released version 0.995 and it is starting to look better than anything on the market. Interesting detail: Celtx is free. At least no money will be wasted on the illusion that software could spit out a story.)

In his book STORY, Robert McKee makes the point:

"If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: "I've heard a lot of symphonies... I can also play the piano... I think I'll knock one out this weekend? No. But that's exactly how many screenwriters begin: "I've seen a lot of flicks, some good and some bad... I got A's in English... vacation time 's coming..."

The essence of story is not rocket science. I keep repeating: it is a learnable skill. But a skill that must be learned nonetheless. What you cannot learn is the inspiration, the need to tell a specific story. Yet so many people with the desire to tell that story believe they can get away without properly mastering the craft. They want to build the house without a notion of engineering. They want to compose a symphony without knowing a C from a Cis. They want to serve a bouillabaisse but can't even cook a ratatouille.

If you were hoping there might be a new generation waiting to jump in and rejuvenate this general malaise, the following might put a stop to your optimism. At a networking event earlier this year, I spoke with a university student who had taken a screenwriting class the previous year. Asked about the one thing she took away from that class, she answered:

"I guess, that you can break the rules and still get away with it."


Having recently caught up on some Australian films of the past few years (see my previous post) and listening to feedback from others on more recent films (Clubland, West, Suburban Mayhem etc.) it seems these pictures are unable to connect with a mainstream audience. Or any audience, for that matter. It's no longer an issue of getting the audience into the theater, if those who saw the films are not entertained. There are strong indications the problems don't lie in the execution but in the bare essentials of story. Yep, they are breaking the rules.

But where did things start to go wrong? I believe the lack of understanding of the principles of story has become endemic for our entire industry. Not only do writers lack the skills: producers and funding decision makers fail to see the flaws in screenplays. As long as the 'elements' are in place, the film will get made. The 'elements' being: cast, technically experienced crew, government funding etc.

On the government's role: while preparing development notes for a government funding application, a particular paragraph in the guidelines struck me.

"What is the point of view (POV) of the script? That is, where is the audience positioned in relation to the script? Are they close to one central character? Is it an omnipotent POV?"

An "omnipotent POV"?? Somebody has lost the plot here. Point of view is crucially important in a story. The terminology should be second nature to anyone even remotely involved in screenwriting, let alone the funding of it. If even the funding agencies cannot get their act together, why would anyone expect the writers would? Interesting to note that the same funding agency has been reported to have feature drama screenplays assessed by documentary film makers. Go figure.

Recently a young filmmaker submitted a rough cut on DVD with an application for post-production funding. The application was rejected. The assessor didn't like the film? Correction: the assessor didn't like the screenplay. The rejection was justified in a multi-page assessment of the screenplay. The assessor did reference the DVD but the brunt of his tirade was directed at the script.

Why am I concerned... Very concerned...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Elephant in the Room

"Babies don't come from babies", Keith Jarrett said when he meant that great art isn't inspired by other art but by life itself.
This quote shot through my mind tonight while watching the Australian film 2:37 by Murali Thalluri.

I had ordered 2:37 from Quickflix, as reference material for a feature film in post-production I am currently working on in the capacity of co-producer and story consultant. Because of some friends' recommendations, I was really looking forward to watching young Thalluri's directorial debut. Imagine my joy when less than forty-eight hours after putting it on my wishlist, the DVD tumbled in the letter box!

Thalluri is obviously infatuated with Gus Van Sant and more specifically ELEPHANT, of which 2:37 is a blatant pastiche. The school, the parallel points of view, the moody light, the school massacre reference, etc. How much more derivative can you be without breaking the law?

But all this could have been forgiven. Other great directors have copied shamelessly, to create something better or at least equally entertaining. I hate to admit but this umpteenth Australian case of the emperor's new clothes is boring as hell. The best five minutes are the opening scene and this is indeed great cinema: a promising naturalistic build-up of suspense, leading to the discovery of a student's suicide.

The dead body is not shown in the opening scene and most if not all of the movie's anticipation (or lack thereof) hinges on that single question: "Who died?" For most of the 98mins running time, the filmmakers are trying to outsmart the audience, ultimately delivering a twist nobody could have possibly seen coming. It may work in novels but it doesn't in movies, as evidenced by that obscenely successful whodunit whose screen adaptation embarrassed even the die hard fans: THE DA VINCI CODE. Too bad 2:37 didn't have the same marketing pull to defy any story sense and make hundreds of millions nonetheless.


The mystery around the identity of the suicide victim in 2:37 is equivalent to that bad whodunit in which a totally uninteresting character we have hardly seen, suddenly shows up with motive and weapon. Even when a whodunit is done well, it often lacks suspense. On this subject Hitchcock once said:

"Mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense."

That said, 2:37 might still have worked, if only the screenwriter had made the least effort to entertain or excite us along the way. Instead we are witnessing a never-ending tirade of profanities and artful but empty cinematography. Unfortunately I wasn't impressed either by the performances of the army of young and gorgeous actors. But you can't blame them, with this poor material.

The film does make various attempts to convey emotion but most of those lack drama. When the main characters talk about themselves and their youthful angst, the effect is theatrical, not cinematic. And until we know and understand the circumstances of these confessions, we will not fully invest emotionally in their content. That is why the 'talking heads' in this film don't work, no matter how desperately the actors try to convince us.

Bottom line: there are some basic screenwriting rules you break at your own risk such as: "you must not deceive the audience." I suspect Thalluri was considered an auteur and a prodigy, who de facto transcends the principles of storytelling. Here's my two cents: beginning writers should not try and outsmart their peers, let alone the audience.


Mysteriously despite all the above, the film was selected for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival where it received a 17 mins standing ovation, effectively paving the way for a successful theatrical release. Or so you would expect. Banking on the festival response, quick international sales were achieved reportedly bringing in three times the film's production cost.

The reality of the film's performance at the box office was sobering: at home it hardly grossed $500k. Of course some sources blame the distributor's bad release campaign. Or the exhibitor's marginal programming. And finally the audience, for not wanting to open up to the film.

And tomorrow me, for not supporting Australian cinema.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Little Things Got Bigger

Congrats to Nathan Fielding, recipient of the Monte Miller Award '07! Nathan walked away from the awards last night in Sydney with a broad smile and a cheque of $5,000.

About developing the winning script LITTLE THINGS with me he says: "I came to you with a bunch of scenes in the hope of finding a story and when I look back I'm still surprised at how far we have come. [...] Thanks again Karel. I'll get to work on another oddly thrown together bunch of characters and give you a call. I know you love a challenge."

It should be noted that the draft was developed with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission. Read Nathan's full testimonial here.

Big congratulations also to Story Dept. reader Andrew Slattery from Caves Beach who won the Monte Miller Award - Short Form for his screenplay NEAR SYNCOPE.