Autopilot biography – Understanding De Palma

De-Palma_UK-quad-600x450

I’m generally not a fan of autobiography. Similarly, I am not a fan of retrospective panels where the topic of the retrospective is the guest.

Although the thinking behind such efforts is who better to tell us the truth of past events than the person who lived them, I find that the idea rarely manifests into a reality. Too often, we are merely presented with a series of events or facts, rather than any real insights into whom these people are and how those events both fed into and were products of those individuals.

This turned out to be the case with the 2015 documentary De Palma, recently released on Netflix.

Over a span of 110 minutes, we hear every thought that famed film director Brian De Palma has about pretty much every movie he ever made, from his days as a film student up to his most recent contributions. And yet, despite all of this exposition, I feel like I am no closer to understanding De Palma than I was when the almost two-hour odyssey began.

For film buffs and film students, there is plenty to like about this documentary, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. De Palma discusses his many influences as a cinematographer and director, offering lovely homages to older films through examples of his own.

de-palma

And the film is a nice reflection on a period of time in American cinematography, when the likes of Scorsese, Lucas, and Spielberg were establishing their imprints on film. We get a taste of what it was like to always be on the cusp of the studios, and the struggle to live up to your artistic vision and hearing crickets chirp in empty theatres.

But I didn’t just want a taste. I wanted to understand the artist and his art.

A few years ago, at the Austin Film Festival, I sat in a session where Chris Carter discussed the genesis and ongoing development of The X Files, a series I quite enjoyed for its first few seasons. But rather than learn anything insightful or useful—which is the norm at Austin—I felt like I was sitting in a Comic-Con session, where a lot of the questions began: “Remember that episode where…”

I’m not belittling Comic-Con or fan worship. It has its place.

I just didn’t think that a screenwriters’ conference was that place.

brian-de-palma-steven-spielberg-and-martin-scorsese_large

This is why I don’t like autobiographies, in general. Rare is the book or documentary where a subject is required to delve deep into their experiences, to explore how those experiences moulded them during moments of personal evolution.

Instead, the documentarians tend to be fanboys or -girls, who start every segment with the question: “Remember that movie where…”

[For context, think back to a Chris Farley character on Saturday Night Live.]

Ironically, in discussing the camera work on Carlito’s Way, De Palma kind of summarized my problem with the attempt to catalogue every film in his filmography:

“The thing you learn about the long take is that you can document the emotion happening on the screen in real time,” he explained. “And once you start cutting things up, you lose the emotional rhythm of things.”

This is my issue. There was no emotional center to this documentary. It was too technical or mechanical and lacked almost any sense of humanity and therefore artistry.

And I say almost, because De Palma finally touched on a subject that I wish the entire film had documented as he summed up his thoughts.

“The thing about making movies is every mistake you made is up there on the screen,” he said, almost wistfully. “Everything you didn’t solve, every short-cut you made you will look at it the rest of your life. So, it’s like a record of the things that you didn’t finish, basically.”

And more powerfully:

“People in your life can be threatened by your intense concentration, your complete immersion in what you’re doing,” he continued. “My true wife is my movie, not you.”

Ironically, I am left thinking the same thing at the end of De Palma. What might have been?

See also:

Variety review

VOX review

The Guardian review

Lives of love and beauty – Asmara

asmara

Only thing more colourful than her hair is her personality

Asmara Bhattacharya: writer, musician, ball of energy

I don’t know how I met Asmara. I know it was while visiting Austin for the screenwriters conference and film festival, but beyond that, it just feels like this spitfire of a lady simply arrived in my life as an eternal friend. An orchestral musician, I know Asmara mostly as a prolific and amazing writer, who churns out new and stunning ideas and screenplays the way I process bacon, if in the opposite direction.

The lady is a creative and playful whirlwind of enthusiasm and polychromatic hair. One does not join Asmara in an activity or social outing, so much as get swept along in an amusing riptide of good wishes and excitement. Everyone and everything are fascinating to her, and while she is ceaselessly surrounded by friends and acquaintances, you never feel like you’re being neglected when in her company. I still haven’t figured out how she does it. She is a human social media hub, connecting people from every corner of the universe.

Thanks, Asmara, for keeping my world lively and for constantly challenging me to be a better writer, and maybe to stay up past 10pm in Austin.

See also:

Dickflicks.net (her blog)

2016 Austin Film Fest bio

Our story so far…

Bradbury

It’s been roughly two years since I stepped off the ledge of the normal world and into the free fall of who I am…and perhaps it is not surprising that I am still discovering who that is.

 

For the uninitiated, a brief recap:

After spending the better part of my adult life as a scientist, magazine writer, communications manager and ad copywriter/creative director, I realized I wasn’t happy. Adding fuel to that fire was the death of my beloved grandmother and of my marriage (thankfully not an acrimonious separation). But where I might have let these events take me to darker depths, I realized that I had never been freer in my life…and the freedom felt good.

Thus, with nothing to hold onto and therefore nothing to lose, I stepped into the abyss of uncertainty and am pursuing my life as a storyteller. And nicely, two years in, I am starting to see dividends.

 

After taking screenwriting classes for a while, I now feel confident that I know what I am doing and have no problem trusting my instincts when it comes to storytelling. I’m good at this.

My latest and possibly most commercial screenplay to date, The Naughty List, awaits external validation in 4 different screenplay competitions. (I may be good at this, but my name is hardly renown at this point.)

My first screenplay Tank’s has slowly climbed its way up the “charts” of screenplay competitions over the past year, and after being a Second Rounder at the Austin Film Festival, it took top prize in the Nashville Film Festival as Best Animated Feature Screenplay.

SomeTV!, the sketch comedy show that I co-wrote, is in front of cameras, and I am told by our Producer/God-head that the initial cuts look amazing. You’ll see the footage as soon as I can send you to it.

Eye of the Beholder, the novel I am co-writing with Agah Bahari—based on the real events of his life in Iran—is starting to write itself (a wonderful moment for a writer) and already has anticipatory buzz in New York entertainment circles.

Eye of the Beholder

I wrote a short children’s book, Butch Goes To Work, that teaches children about working dogs and the abilities of people with disabilities. It is currently seeking a publisher.

Really, really slowly (sorry Kevin Scott), I am co-writing a comedy album in the understanding that what doesn’t lend itself to YouTube is perfect fodder for iTunes!

I almost signed an agreement to develop a screenplay treatment of a mystery novel, and even though this project didn’t come to fruition, I will continue to work with the novelist on future projects.

And I am in the process of taking my new life to the next level by moving to Los Angeles. When the move will take place is still a question.

I am grateful to the folks involved in the magazine and advertising work that continues to pay my bills. And I am over-the-top grateful to all of my friends, family and other supporters who applaud my journey at every turn.

I am a storyteller. I tell stories. And I have never been happier.

PS I don’t know if Bradbury actually said the quote at the front of this piece, but he or whomever was right.

Award season 2013

As the alcohol sets in and the year ends, I thought I’d take a moment to consider the 2013 Randys, the seminal moments and/or people of the past year.

Every year is special but this was truly a year for the books (or Kindles/Kobos if you’re one of those people).

Most engaging conversation: Weekly meetings with friend, Agah Bahari

Friend, child of the universe and novel buddy (as in we're writing a novel) Agah

Friend, child of the universe and novel buddy (as in we’re writing a novel) Agah

Silliest playtime: Conversations with Kevin Scott, Marsha Mason, Nic Lemon

Just set the camera to reward and place a diaper on the furniture...there will be pee

Just set the camera to record and place a diaper on the furniture…there will be pee

Most raucous laughter: Monthly bonfires organized by Janine Short

Conversation runs the gamut from politics to coitus interruptus and everything in between

Conversation runs the gamut from politics to coitus interruptus and everything in between

Most head-spinning period: Austin Film Festival, both the sessions and attendees

Terry Rossio on AFF panel

Oddest friendship (tie): Virtual connection to blogger Ned Hickson; Duke #75, mascot of the Toronto Marlies

One is a pro hockey mascot and the other is a humorist (US spelling here)

One is a pro hockey mascot and the other is a humorist (US spelling here)

Most humbing moment: Little Joe’s Heart campaign and response

We lost a little fighter this year...he will not be forgotten

We lost a little fighter this year…he will not be forgotten

Friend of the year (tie): Leela Holliman, Nic Lemon, Marsha Mason

This is Leela...you met Nick and Marsha above

This is Leela…you met Nick and Marsha above

Dream come true: Travelling Costa Rica (bonus: with my brother, Shawn “Chongo” Solnik)

One of the few photos of my brother NOT flipping the bird...here he flips fish

One of the few photos of my brother NOT flipping the bird…here he flips fish

Greatest moment of the year: Photo with cast of PuppetUp!

I don't care if you're sick of hearing about these guys

I don’t care if you’re sick of hearing about these guys

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)

 

The Throw – Austin Film Festival (part one)

Terry Rossio on AFF panel

One of the sessions I was determined to attend this year was The Throw given by screenwriter Terry Rossio, the man who brought us Aladdin, Shrek, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Lone Ranger (okay, so nobody’s perfect).

Rossio is a legend at the Austin Film Festival; his The Rewrite session being one of the many highlights. But last year, he went one step further with The Throw, which this year, the folks at AFF decided to put in a hotel ballroom rather than a side meeting room.

For the uninitiated, Rossio explains, the throw is that thing designed into the end of the scene that sets up (or throws to) the next scene. It is a connective element that suggests the two scenes belong side-by-side at a level beyond plot or story.

It can be a visual to visual cue, such as the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the victorious ape throws the bone club into the air and as it spins end-over-end, it turns into a space station.

Alternatively, the throw can be verbal to visual, such as in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones has made his way into the Nazi camp and learns that the Ark of the Covenant is being shipped out on a truck. Indy’s response is “Truck! What truck?” and the very next second, we watch a truck move through the Nazi camp, onto which Indy has somehow hidden himself.

According to Rossio, there are two ways to organize the narrative structure of a movie or screenplay: using storyline cuts or storyteller cuts.

Storyline cuts emerge from the events of the story, seeming natural and seamless. For example, the storming of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, where we see the soldiers move from one section of the beach to another.

Storyline cuts, Rossio explains, maintain the tension and keep the audience immersed in the story. It is a way to maintain and build story momentum while asking for minimal effort from the audience. It is much like a series of dominoes.

Another example Rossio offers is the end of the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, when the house finally stops spinning and Dorothy moves from the sepia tones of Kansas into the Technicolor world of Oz. She even states, famously, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Storyteller cuts, in contrast, imply there is a grand design to the story or an author, who is choosing what you see and when rather than simply presenting events as they happen. This is common in ensemble films such as Love, Actually and American Graffiti.

This sense of a grand design can be comforting and reassuring to an audience, says Rossio. It creates a distance between the audience and the story, with the less immersive story being seen as a creation.

These types of cuts often support a narrator or guide who practically sits alongside an audience and takes them through the story. The guide can appear on-screen or perhaps as a voiceover. Think Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption.

According to Rossio, storyteller cuts are also very good at renewing a story’s momentum, jumping to new locations or situations before a prior scene’s energy drops and thereby re-engaging the audience.

But how do you establish these cuts? With the throw, which Rossio divides into two categories (a fixation, it seems): the strong throw and the soft throw.

(See the next post for Part Two, which actually goes into the different throws and how you would use them.)

(Images is property of owner and is used here without permission, because I don’t give a toss.)

Just tell the story – Austin Film Festival

Ron Nyswaner

Perhaps the most interesting advice I heard while attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival came from the Just Tell the Story session by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who suggested that not all stories are movie-worthy. It’s not that such stories are unimportant or not worth telling, but rather that film is a very specific medium—as are novels, videos, television, etc.—and therefore requires specific criteria be met for appeal.

1. Do you have a worthy protagonist? It is important that the audience understands the protagonist’s struggle, that the character is constantly dealing with questions of life, loss, yearning. There should be clearly understood interior and exterior conflict.

2. Does you protagonist have face worthy obstacles or a worthy antagonist? The antagonist should represent the opposing view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the antipode to your protagonist’s views. Overall and within individual scenes, there should always be a sense of ideas in conflict. Nyswaner stressed the importance of the hope-dread axis—What do you hope is going to happen and what do you dread is going to happen in a scene—suggesting that the stronger the axis, the more tension you build in your story.

3. How strong is the central relationship? Sydney Pollack suggested that every story is a love story, and Nyswaner followed on that, suggesting that the relationships between your characters, and particularly the protagonist and antagonist, is what drives the story forward. The stronger that relationship (positively or negatively), the stronger the story. He also discussed the idea of triangulation; the effect of adding a third party into a scene to increase the tension or stakes.

4. Where am I (the writer) in the story? Who am I? All good art is personal, Nyswaner said, so the writer should look for his or her emotional connection with the story. By making the story personal to you, you develop a deeper story.

5. Take your audience into a world that’s interesting. If the audience cannot connect with the environment that you’ve created, they will find it difficult to get into your story. This doesn’t mean that the environment has to be familiar so much as understandable and relatable.

6. Do you have enough turning points to carry through a feature? A good film story is constantly changing direction, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Without sufficient turning points, audience members disconnect from the story or worse, get bored. Attitudes and powerbases should shift throughout the story to keep the audience guessing.

7. Does the audience love the story and its characters? Nyswaner suggests writers must be ruthless, paraphrasing a quote (trying to remember by whom) that a writer is a person who will betray the people he loves to impress people he will never meet. The key for a writer is to give everything to the story he or she is trying to tell, even at the cost of real-world expectations and relationships. This is not to say that success comes from being the biggest asshole, but rather that it is important to keep the focus of a film on the story and its characters to the detriment of other external factors (as best as possible).

 

Ron Nyswaner is perhaps best known for having penned the movie Philadelphia, but has also worked on television (Ray Donovan) and in print, and teaches film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.

The First 10 Pages – Austin Film Festival

Lindsay Doran

For a new screenwriter trying to break his or her way into the film or television industries, one of the toughest tasks is getting someone to read your script. But even if you can get someone to crack that front page, the job isn’t done. You have to catch the reader’s attention and you may only have 30 or 10 or maybe a single page in which to do so.

At the 2013 Austin Film Festival in October, producer Lindsay Doran presided over a session called The First Ten Pages, which examined the opening pages of five scripts from people who had submitted to the screenplay competition. Below are some of her general thoughts on telltale trouble spots.

1. Boring title: From the cover itself, the title should grab the reader’s attention. Ideally, it will trigger a question in the reader’s mind or play with the reader’s imagination. Can you imply action or hint at something interesting inside. Don’t be vague or boring.

2. Story doesn’t begin: So often, the writer spends the first ten pages simply setting up the real world and its cast of characters that he or she forgets to actually start the action of the story. Without starting the story, you risk boring the reader.

3. Not actually a comedy: Presumably, she is talking here about comedy scripts that aren’t comedic. Funny is subjective, but is the movie actually a comedy or light drama, which Doran described as a bad place to be. If the writer is heading in that direction, perhaps it is better to write a drama that incorporates humour as a form of relief or due to specific characters.

4. Unlikeable main character: Not to say that the protagonist has to be a good person, but that the reader has no reason to root for him or her. Show us the human side of the protagonist that helps to explain why he or she is redeemable or needs the reader’s support.

5. Too many characters: One script Doran reviewed introduced 7 characters on the first page alone, which aside from being a lot to take in, left the readers with little sense of who the protagonist in the story was. As well, it was difficult to determine how these multiple characters related. Even with an ensemble piece, it is possible to introduce the characters more slowly, perhaps only introducing one subplot at a time.

6. Obstacles without stakes: While it is important to present the protagonist with challenges, the rising conflict, for the reader to engage in the story, those challenges must have important implications to the future of the protagonist. Delaying the protagonist from making it to the office is one thing, but make sure the reader understands why it is so important for the protagonist to make it to the office and what happens if the character doesn’t.

7. Confusing: Doran suggests there is a fine line between intriguing and confusing. If the reader finds him or herself lost while coursing through the opening 10 pages, he or she is unlikely to press further into the story.

8. Transparent exposition: On the flip side, make sure that any important bit of information is woven within the fabric of the narrative and/or dialogue and not simply plopped on the page. Clumsy, transparent exposition lifts the reader out of the story simply because it doesn’t flow and almost seems like a side thought.

9. Comedy based on a superficial world: Again, assuming a comedy, does the writer really understand the world she describes or is she simply aiming for cheap, cliché laughs at a well known environment and archetype? The Devil Wears Prada is a good example of a movie that went deep inside the fashion industry and avoided the superficial jokes about models, designers and photographers.

10. The three most terrifying words in the history of the American screenplay: Here Doran was being a bit playful, but wanted to make the point that it is difficult to get people to read a screenplay about a mature woman from outside the United States. Any one of those protagonist features is hard enough to promote, but to have all three is screenplay suicide, according to Doran.

Another year, another AFF Second Rounder

20th AFF poster

So, it would seem that rewrites work.

Last year, I entered my screenplay Tank’s into the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition and other than some amazing notes, it went nowhere in the competition. (My spec teleplay of The Big Bang Theory, however, reached the second round before bowing out.)

Fast-forward a year and four rounds of revisions, I just learned that the same screenplay made it to the second round of the competition before bowing out…Tank’s made it to the top 10% of its category, which feels pretty good considering the AFF received more than 8,600 screen- and teleplays this year, its highest submission rate ever.

Aside from the $200+ refund on my registration fee, what makes this really awesome is the esteem in which Second Rounders and higher are held at the screenwriting conference portion of the film festival. You see, the Austin Film Festival is more than just a whack of movie screens and Hollywood A-listers (like my own Toronto International Film Festival; on now). The AFF is also a 4-day screenwriters’ conference and love-fest, as 400+ introverts try to get just drunk enough to come out of their shells and commune with Hollywood screenwriters and film-makers.

If you are a screenwriter and have never been to the AFF, GO! It is worth the money.

Sure, some of the sessions amount to little more than hero-worship where you’ll hear questions like: “Remember that scene in X-Files when Mulder gave Scully that look? Did you write that, because that was awesome?” But most of the sessions are actually helpful discussions and learning opportunities with the film and television world’s elite writers…and best of all, these Gods not only stick around, but they’ll actually talk to you at the BBQ or in the bars. It’s like they give a shit about your shit.

Last year was my first AFF, and I was the introvert amongst introverts looking for the closest corner in which to nurse my beer or G&T. This year will be different. This year, I will move out of the corner and occupy the middle of the room…who knows, I may even talk to someone. (God, I need a drink!)

Oh, the Austin Film Festival runs October 24-31 from the Driskill Hotel.

PS If you think I’m bragging, my prowess is kept in check by a friend I met at AFF who had two Second Rounders and one Semifinalist screenplay in last year’s competition alone.

The writer who… (UPDATED)

As an advertising copywriter, I was constantly called upon to summarize a client’s product with a single line, as few words as possible that would capture the brand essence of the product or service. The almighty tagline.

As a magazine writer, I am also called upon to summarize the stories I write into a sentence or fragment. Something that will give the reader the kernel of the story so they can decide whether they want to read it or move on.

And finally, as a budding screenwriter, I am asked to summarize my entire story in a single sentence so prospective producers can get my idea and see the possibilities, artistic but mostly commercial.

And yet, with all of this practice in concise summarization, there is yet one product that eludes my abilities: me as a writer.

At last year’s Austin Film Festival, during a session on how to work the festival, the Langlais brothers—that’s how they describe themselves, but Gene and Paul, for the record—challenged each of us to define ourselves in a single sentence as “the writer who…”. They suggested that if we could define ourselves as producing one type of screenplay, it would make it easier for producers and directors to wrap their heads around who we were and where to go when they needed that kind of screenplay. Call yourself something and then be the best that you can be.

The challenge for me was that I couldn’t even decide on a medium or genre, let alone determine what types of stories I wrote.

About the only medium I have not yet written for is radio and that’s more the result of lack of opportunity than lack of interest.

I am naturally inclined to write comedy, but my last two screenplays have been family drama and murder thriller with the possibility of a horror on the horizon.

For nine months or so, the question has plagued me. I am “the writer who…”

Recently, however, because of a screenwriting course and completely separate conversations about life with a friend, I have had a bit of a breakthrough, if not an actual answer.

Maybe, I’m looking at this challenge on the wrong level. Rather than focusing on the details of what I have done—genres, media, angles, etc—I need instead to take everything I have done to its most basic level. Stripped of the decorative details, what is the essence of what I create?

What is at the core of my favourite comedy sketches? My screenplays? My television shows? My magazine articles? And what am I doing that makes it mine?

I still can’t tell people I’m “the writer who…”, but I think I’m a little bit closer.

(Image is property of owner and is used without permission, about which I am of two minds.)

 

UPDATE

Interestingly, the Canadian film organization Raindance Toronto just posted an article called Creating a Personal Genre. Although aimed at filmmakers, the article clearly has overtones of what I presented above. Check it out.