One of the frustrating things about working on this movie is that I am not supposed to talk about it… yet. But things are looking really good and sooner or later I will be sharing a lot. What I can talk about are some of the epiphanies I have had while climbing this particular mountain. As both writer and director on this film, a great deal of the movie is locked up in my head, and others working with me have to patiently wait for it to come out. During each phase of the project, a new pile of ingredients must be assembled into a whole: The script. The storyboards. The music score. Each one is its own little project. At each phase, the producers and crew around me go through a period where they are totally in the dark and nervous about how the ingredients will come together. Because they don’t have the luxury of living in my head. They have to sit outside my head and wait for it all to assemble. And it doesn’t matter how much I talk about it in detail, there are still nerves. “Well, is that going to be cheesy?” “Is that going to be confusing?” “Hmm, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good.”
Well it IS going to be good, trust me! I just KNOW it! (FYI, it doesn’t work when the director keeps saying that.) The truth is, half the time I don’t really, actually, honestly know if it’s going to all come together and work. I trust that through the process of shuffling enough pieces around, a “whole” will emerge. That’s the process. That’s creation. But anyone watching something being created is confused by it and can be very worried by the mess it has to be before it’s done. Dan Harmon, creator of “Community” and “Rick and Morty” and basically a creative mad scientist, said something really great about this: “If you’re present when things are being created, then what you’re seeing is always going to look like a mistake. It’s messy and a lot of it is wrong until it’s done. No decision makers should be anywhere near where creation is happening.”
Amen. But most of us don’t get to shove everyone out of the room until the art is done. We have to let them be a part of the process. The challenge I have founds is that a lot of a director’s time is spent managing expectations and reactions to the process, not the process itself. You have to keep all these people in the loop as you make something. That’s the job.
One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found with managing these expectations is that, while I’m looking at the “whole,” many others get stuck looking at the pieces. They can obsess over them. Many times I deal with executives who cannot have a conversation about the entree because they are really worried about the ingredients. Not even the recipe, but the single ingredients. Follow me? If I was making a cake, the discussion would not be about how much lemon juice is going in the batter, it would be about how sour and wrong lemon juice seems to be for something as sweet as cake.
“It’s cake! Cake is sweet!”
“Yes, but just a little bit of lemon juice in this particular cake will make the sweet part really good. Trust me.”
“But it’s from LEMONS!” (Producer presses intercom button) Linda, get me a lemon juice specialist. We need to have a meeting on the sweet or sour properties of lemon juice.”
“You’re not listening. It’s not about the lemon juice alone. It’s about how it will taste with everything else. Just let me put the lemon juice in and taste it.”
“The studio just called. They are telling us all kids hate lemon juice.”
I love metaphors. But you see what I mean? It’s not about the ingredients, or the pieces, or even the very skilled talents of individuals. It’s about the collective result of all of it. The end result will ONLY be the unique thing it can be with ALL the ingredients mixed in that unique way. Studios who bet their summers on movie stars or brand names or even “a really good script” still scratch their heads when the whole recipe does not cook up well. They were too focused on landing key ingredients. And no, I don’t know 100% how to make it all work either. If movies were easy, everyone would make hits.
The other part that grinds me is when well-meaning experts tell me the opposite: They tell me that NONE of the ingredients will save me, and any talk of relying on this ingredient or that ingredient is a weak position. As a script is written and rewritten, there’s a point of saturation where the page is not going to reveal anything more. You’ve got to get off the page and add a new “ingredient.” Perhaps the actors will bring something to it, even improv something I could never write. But I’ve had producers tell me, “Don’t rely on your actors to save the script.”
When we are finally storyboarding, there is a concern that the boards don’t have enough comedy or emotion yet. Trust me, I say, we will get more of that when we add music. “But we can’t rely on music to save the boards,” they say. As we edit the boards, dialogue and music together, we are still just watching sketches without much performance in them. I say a lot of that will change as we move into animation, but I’ve had very well-meaning producers tell me, “You can’t rely on animation to save you.”
Over and over, in every phase of the project, I’ve been warned not to lean on one ingredient to help other ingredients. “You can’t rely on actors to save the script.” “You can’t rely on music to save the performance.” “You can’t rely on animation to save the boards.”
While I completely agree that every phase needs to build on a solid foundation from the last one, I realized that another fact is true:
EVERYTHING RELIES ON EVERYTHING ELSE. EVERY PIECE “SAVES” EVERY OTHER PIECE.
Yes, I WILL rely on the acting to save the script, and the music to save the acting, and the editing to save the music, and the animation to save the boards, etc. etc. etc.! NONE of it works until it works together. NONE of it will be “good” or “finished” until I put the last piece in the puzzle. If the joke I wrote is still not funny, many times it’s because the right shot still hasn’t been paired with the right music and the right actor saying it the right way. Directing is all about working the ingredients until they taste good. It’s not math, it’s not a formula, and it doesn’t work the same way every time. Just let me stir everything some more. It’s that annoying creator thing again — it’s all in my head and the cake isn’t done yet.
I will be relying on everybody, thank you. There is no “whole” without the pieces, and I need them all. I think the disconnect and frustration with many who live outside of the creator’s head is that they don’t know how to look at the pieces. Love them only as pieces, and be patient until they form the “whole.”
Now for some reason I really need to go eat some cake.
Howard the Duck showed up at the end of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” for a few seconds, to the delight of cult film geeks like me. There’s no mistaking how awful the 1986 film was, and it’s always a great “bad movie reference” to make. But it’s also a character who’s time has come. With “Guardians” setting the tone for such weirdness, I think it could happen. In a recent interview, George Lucas made an interesting observation that shines light on what is really important when creating a character. Sadly, I think he’s got it wrong.
Lucas said of the original 1986 film, “I told the producer and writer it’s not gonna work. … You can’t put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work!” He said that the recent cameo in “Guardians” proves the character will be far better received now because, “It’s a digital duck. When you have a digital duck, you can do anything. You can make it act.”
While I could devote a whole blog to the dangerous tendency Lucas has to “make anyone act” with digital manipulation, I find it more interesting that he still doesn’t know why “Howard the Duck” bombed. It wasn’t because the servos in the head of the duck suit couldn’t make the eyes emote properly. It was a BAD MOVIE. Howard was written as an annoying jerk and a whiny wimp. The tone of the film from start to finish missed the target set by the comics, and overall it was just… really silly. But Lucas, like many filmmakers in love with today’s tricks, has forgotten that characters can be wonderful even with the cheapest execution. CGI is amazing, but flawless execution does not make a character great. It’s not the HOW, folks. It’s the WHO.
Who is your character? Where does he come from? What’s her perspective on life and the conflict she has to survive? Is he funny? Is she vulnerable? Are they like us?
To make my point, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit Kermit the Frog. Probably the least impressive execution of a character in 2015. He’s… a felt puppet. You can see the stitches in his head, for Pete’s sake. Yet he is still one of the most beloved characters in the world. Exhibit B: Mickey Mouse (the definition of simplistic design). Exhibit C: Chewbacca (a guy in a suit). Exhibit D: E.T. (another dwarf stuck inside animatronics). Beloved, beloved, beloved!
On the flip side, Howard was one of the most sophisticated animatronic achievements of its day. It’s nice that George is pinning “Howard’s” failure on the writer and producer of the film — the film that also bears his name as Executive Producer. “I told ’em!” But I would actually say they DID make that duck suit work. Very, very advanced execution, resulting in an unlikeable character. When the perfection of CGI came along, well… a lot of characters got worse. Exhibit A: Jar Jar Binks. Why no likey? His CGI was the best in the world.
Now Groot and Rocket Raccoon certainly prove you can have both beautiful CGI and lovable characters. But James Gunn and company didn’t take their eyes off of the “WHO” before they got to the “HOW.” Your character has to be someone you believe is real. And if they are the main character, they should be someone we all want to hang out with. Even if they have bad habits or dirty secrets, they need to be relatable and have lives that mirror our own. That’s when we care. I love animatronics. I love claymation. I love puppets. And when you see a kid’s eyes upon seeing a Disney mascot walk up to them, you know it’s not because it looks so REAL. It’s because that character is a friend. It’s someone the kid KNOWS and understands.
I only share this because I am in the midst of some character building of my own on an animated film and I don’t have $100 Million to do it. So this interview came as a good reminder. I’m not one to knock Lucas as a habit. After all, he is the man who gave us some of the greatest characters of all time. But “Howard The Duck” still remains one of the great lessons in character creation. Don’t worry about the “How.” There are 1000 guys in Hollywood that will figure that part out. There are far fewer people who can get the “Who” right.
(You can read the original story in The Hollywood Reporter here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/howard-duck-marvel-george-lucas-789746)
Here’s an oldie but a goodie. Not many know I used to host a game show in the mid-seventies. But I did.
Robocop – Too much talk, not enough rock
Lego Movie – Terrible idea. Shouldn’t have worked. Awesome anyway.
Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson does Wes Anderson
Neighbors – Way better than a Seth Rogen movie should be
Muppets Most Wanted – Ty Burrell: Best Muppet (& the new Clouseau)
Noah – Rock people. Rock people????
Cap. 2, Winter Soldier – Superman, take notes
Divergent – In the future we’ll all be color-coordinated
Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Becoming a villain takes only two minutes!
Godzilla – Why why why did Cranston die?
X-Men: DOFP – Wolverine is Marty McFly
How To Train Your Dragon 2– How to make a sequel
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Apes + Guns = Ape – pocalypse!
Guardians of the Galaxy – Dance off, bro. You and me.
The Expendables 3 – More people on the poster than in the theater
Birdman – Great opening shot
Big Hero 6 – Naming the second one will be a problem
Into The Woods – James Corden is the upscale Jim Gaffigan
The Hobbit 3 – I wish it had actually been about The Hobbit
The Interview – Congrats hackers, you just hyped what you hate
I am a hardcore Star Wars fan… so you can imagine how excited I was to see the teaser for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Yes, it was awesome. But it also made me realize how much I love knowing nothing else about this movie. Those 88 seconds are still a complete mystery to me, and that may be the best part about it.
In an era where “Behind The Scenes” clips are everywhere and it’s common to know all about a movie a year in advance, we have robbed ourselves of the delightful effect of being totally surprised when we go to the movies. But this is not a blog to scold spoilers. This is more about celebrating the “Audience Experience.”
When I first heard that new Star Wars movies were being planned, my first thought was, “Will my career trajectory raise to the level that I could ever get to be involved in one of these new movies?” I was envious of the new talent being invited into the candy store. My whole life, I’ve dreamed of getting to make a movie with these characters and in this universe. But now that the first images of Episode VII have hit my eyeballs, I’ve had an epiphany: I am SO GLAD I am not the guy making this movie. I am SO GLAD I have no job other than to sit down in a dark theater and experience it.
If I were ever so lucky to be the one behind the curtain on a Star Wars film — to stand on the set, to watch every daily, and to spend months reviewing every effects shot — I would be robbed. I would never be able to watch that movie like a fan. But next December, I get to. I get to have NO IDEA what’s going to happen, and that is a real gift.
Remember the first time you saw “Star Wars?” Or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Terminator” or “The Matrix?” I don’t know about you, but I was not prepared. I was blindsided by those movies and it was AWWWWWESOME. To not know anything at all about those movies was the best possible way to see them. I wish I had a “Men In Black” mind-wiper so I could have that experience again! The next best thing is introducing films to my kids. I get a little taste of that completely fresh viewing experience, one more time.
As someone who’s been involved in making features, I get a different sense of satisfaction from my film than the people watching it. My satisfaction is, “It’s DONE! The thing in my head is out there!” But I will never experience it the way the audience does. That’s how I introduced “Hoodwinked” at the premiere. I told the audience, “I’m envious of you. You get to see this movie for the first time. You don’t have to see all the bits and pieces, all the failed attempts, all the bad ideas. You just get to see it all at once, in the best way possible.”
I love making movies, but being part of the audience rocks. In this irritating culture of spoiler-heavy media, do yourself a favor and steer clear of the rumors and leaks. Enjoy your role as an audience. Enjoy not knowing. As a storyteller, I can tell you that’s the best audience to entertain. And as an audience member, I think it is the most blissful way to experience a story.
(Having said all that, if Lucasfilm and Disney are looking for someone to tackle Greedo’s spinoff movie, call me.)
This is from back in the days of the Steelehouse Podcast, but it still gives deep insight into the life of the “man in red.”
As I continue to write and direct a thing that I can’t talk about, I can at least talk about the things it is teaching me. Good and bad, every project gives you lessons you carry with you the rest of your career. The writing process is never easy, and what has surprised me over the years is that the difficulty is not writing ENOUGH words, it’s writing LESS. If you’re Peter Jackson and you enjoy telling stories over three hours, congratulations, you’re a rare special little gem that doesn’t have to play by as many rules as the rest of us. But for most filmmakers, it’s about editing, cutting down, streamlining, distilling all the ideas down to the ONE idea.
What is the ONE THING your story is trying to say? That’s usually called the theme. But it can be a sentence or an overall message that is the reason you wanted to make the movie in the first place.
In the spirit of crystalizing an idea, I can think back to a panel on Production Design that I attended at the San Diego Comic Con. This was a panel with some of the top guys in the field — designers who have crafted the entire look of films like “X-Men,” “Pirates Of The Carribean,” “Man Of Steel,” etc. And whether you consciously know it or not, really good films have a consistent visual idea all through them that inform every set, every costume and every prop. Everything you are seeing is quietly visually communicating very few streamlined ideas. Distilling.
One of these designers said something wonderfully simple about simplicity. He said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. I want to burn that into my office wall with a laser.
Because in the highly collaborative medium of film, there are lots and lots of people with lots and lots of ideas. Some of them are GREAT ideas. Funny lines, new characters, awesome action scenes. But not everything belongs in the movie. I’m as guilty as anyone. I always over-write. My first and second drafts are met with a lot of success, but my seventh and eighth drafts are these bloated, overly complicated things that are weighed down with too many words, too many ideas. That’s when I shake myself free of all the notes and needs and agendas and remind myself of the MAIN THING.
Look at your theme. If every scene doesn’t reflect it in some way, cut it. Are there characters that can be combined into one character to accomplish the same thing? Are you a writer that is in love with words? (I am.) Stop being fancy. Cut some words. Tell the scene in half the time. Boil everything down to its essence.
This is not to say tangents aren’t fun in stories. I’m a big fan of the awkward pause, the odd sidetrack. Those moments can make films very unique and specific. But choose those battles well. No one needs two hours of tangents and extra characters. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” sure didn’t need it. Get the ark! Get the ark! Get the ark! Indy never stopped and neither did we as the audience. Films are a unique art form in that they are very visual, sparse, lean vehicles for stories. You want no limits, write a novel. But movies are a ride that requires pacing and restraint. Think of any movie that left you satisfied and I’ll show you a movie that was boiled down to its “main thing” and nailed down tight.
I’m not saying I always do it. But I know it’s important. And as I slave away on this movie, it’s currently my MAIN THING.
My friend and writer Andrea Nasfell is part of something called a “BLOG TOUR.” This tour does not involve cruise ships or pina coladas with tiny umbrellas, but you do “travel” through the blogs of many writers as they pass the torch by linking blogs. Andrea’s answers can be found at http://ahundredhats.wordpress.com.
These kinds of questions forced me to analyze my own process… and hey, it’s been about 100 months since I wrote on this blog anyway (you can learn WHY when you get to question #2).
Let’s get to the questions!
Who are you?
That’s a deep question. Personally, I am a husband, father of two boys and generally silly person. I love comedy and movies and geek out a lot on sci-fi stuff and pop culture. Professionally, I’ve been a lot of things — a cartoonist, editor, stand-up comic and art director. But for the past 20 years I’ve mainly been a writer / director in the mainstream entertainment business. This means mostly feature films and good old fashioned “popcorn” entertainment. The great thing about my professional self and my personal self is that they intersect quite a bit at the heart of what drives me: I am a storyteller.
To be a “writer / director” is a valuable commodity, and it also allows me to hop between those roles. It can be refreshing to move between both jobs. I’ve written for other directors, and I’ve also directed things that others have written for me. But on the projects that are most near and dear to me, I am both writer and director.
Sometimes it can be exhausting to wear both “writer” and “director” hats, but I also know that whatever I am putting on the page is something I can carry all the way to the screen.
The writer part of me has been greatly sharpened over the past ten years… I’ve come to discover that writing jobs come along much more frequently than directing jobs. Directing anything takes a lot of people agreeing on a larger process that usually involves pulling the trigger on a lot of money. That can take a long, long time. Writing is usually one of the first steps people are willing to pay for, and that means I get paid a lot more to do that part… even for projects that never get made. The other up side to writing is that I get paid right away to write things, while I’ve been attached to direct projects for years and never seen a dime. Not many people understand this… the actual job of directing doesn’t actually kick in as a paying gig until very late in the evolution of a project. But in my heart of hearts, I love directing more, so I am a patient man.
What are you working on?
I am currently directing and writing an animated feature. It’s a really cool concept but the frustrating thing is that I can’t talk about it right now. I’m a guy who loves to share, share, share on my blog and take viewers through the process. But my bosses are really concerned about keeping things under wraps right now.
What I can say is that it is a fantasy adventure and that the original script and concept came from a couple other writers. I was originally brought on to do a rewrite, and that process started to unwrap a great deal of the story like the layers of an onion. Finally the producers wanted to see what I would do with the story on a much larger scale, reinventing the movie quite a bit. After that, they asked me if I would consider this as my next feature to direct. The more I write on something, the more I SEE it and the more I get attached to it. So I got hooked and here we are.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The more I work, the more I see patterns emerge that tell me what my “brand” is. What is a “Cory Edwards” script? It’s frequently a “genre movie” and is usually a combination of very mundane and relatable characters in fantastical situations. “Hoodwinked” was that tone: fairy tale characters talking like you or I would talk. We pushed it quite far, such as scenes with two caterpillars talking about dating or woodland animals as beat cops. The other heavy theme that I seem to write to is “purpose.” Finding it, denying it, rising to the challenge of a greater purpose. Those kinds of stories are relatable to any audience member. I also love word play and dialogue-based comedy. I like it when dialogue sounds real and natural and messy, but I am also a fan of old-school quotable bits from Monty Python or Abbott & Costello. Language is wonderful and interesting to play with, and every word is important. Everything I write I also read out loud, and when a scene plays well its rhythmic, almost like music.
Why do you write what you do?
In short, I think movies are magic. And any form of storytelling can change an audience, move them, inspire them to change their attitudes or think on big life issues while being entertained. I strive to write things that have two levels like that: on one level, pure escapism and fun. On the other level, they should ask a fundamental question that any human being would ask. Those “universal questions” are embedded in the greatest movies we all love. And I suppose there’s one more thin layer on all of that, which for me is comedy. I think any genre or story, no matter how dramatic, needs a little comedy for you to get invested in the characters and fall in love with them. Even the scariest movies need the release of a laugh after a big scare. At least the films I love have that. In most meetings I take with studio execs or producers, I usually end up saying, “Remember when movies were fun?” Remember “Back To The Future?” Remember “Ghostbusters?” When you look at the very first Star Wars film, almost every scene was punctuated with a laugh. I think a lot of movies these days are too concerned about being “cool” or “tough” or “dark” and somehow that’s supposed to make them more “legit” to an audience. One of my missions is to bring fun back to the movies. Because when you’re smiling, you are open to the story, you are open to receive.
How does your writing process work?
When breaking a story, it’s enjoyable to do that with a lot of people in the room, because a kind of alchemy takes place in the sharing of ideas. I always come away from that process with more interesting ideas than I would ever generate on my own. But when it’s time to actually write the pages, I like to hibernate and work alone. I’ve co-written with several different people, but never found that magical pairing that I hear about — where both people write for hours together in the same room. I need to get my thoughts out with no filters between me and the page. But before that, outline, outline, outline. The structure and the details have to be there before I just plunge into writing the pages. I may spend weeks on the outline of a screenplay. But then it makes the daily assignments of each scene much easier. It’s soothing to know that the road map is already there. After outlining, I like to write fast, just get it all down as it comes to me. Again, I need to do this alone. I’ve found that with other people in the room for that part, there’s too much premature editing and not enough “flow.”
That’s not to say I like to write in a void, or off in some detached location. Setting up my laptop in a Starbucks with a big hot latte is like a perfect day to me. There’s lots of life around me, and usually some good music, but no one will demand my attention. It’s a wonderful “white noise” that keeps me moving. I also think that when you are in a public place to write, you do a lot less staring into space and goofing around. You feel responsible to keep the machine rolling.
I pride myself on writing fast, and I think hitting deadlines, whether for yourself or a client, is the key to becoming a successful writer. Even on days when I don’t feel like writing or feel like I don’t have any ideas in my head, I find that just by hitting the keys, even writing badly, the creative juices will eventually flow. I guess I’d say that you have to start writing to start writing. And if you just have the faith to start hitting the keys, sooner or later, the good writing will come.
That’s it for my installment of this BLOG TOUR. You can read Andrea Nasfel’s contribution here: http://ahundredhats.wordpress.com/2014/07/29/blog-tour-my-writing-process/
And the writer that shared her blog thoughts with Andrea posted here: http://ritasravings.blogspot.com/2014/07/my-writing-process.html
(Sorry, my LINKS are not working like they usually do. Very frustrating.)
Really looking forward to this.
This article from Drew McWeeney on HitFix.com was so powerful to me and so important for the future of movies that I have no better blog than simply reposting it here. So I’m done, go read THIS.
Has life in the age of casual magic made moviegoers numb to the amazing?
Amen, Drew. PREACH.