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.
Frequently, young filmmakers want to sit down and have coffee with me to chat about the business and gain any insight I have. While I’m nowhere near where I want to be in this industry and do not consider myself Yoda, I can at least share some of my war stories and experience. Ten years ago, I wanted nothing more than to spend a few minutes with a seasoned professional and find out how they did it… so I always have a soft spot for these connections (and I am a sucker for free lattes). I also do various panels and Q & A’s, and they inevitably filter down to one question from a young, unproven, unrepresented writer:
“Will you read one of my scripts?”
Unless we are old friends, the answer is usually no. This is not because I am a jerk, but because it rarely leads to a comfortable situation. If the script is GOOD, I now have some kind of responsibility to give specific notes and forward it on to an agent if I know one. I also run the risk of reading something similar to material I am working on myself, which puts me at risk legally. And if it is BAD, well… that’s when I find out how much this person wants to be in the business. If a less-than-good writer can take some major criticism (and I try to be gentle), they are stepping into a long road of notes and criticism for the rest of their life. That’s what all writers have to accept. If that writer has grown up with loving people around them telling them that everything they do is fantastic, then they will not like or accept what I have to say. This makes the ending of our brief mentorship very awkward and painful. They walk away thinking I am some kind of tyrant and I walk away never wanting to return their calls or help them anymore.
But the lesson remains, so heed it well: DON’T BE PRECIOUS. Your work always needs work. Mine does, yours does. As a matter of fact, if you are a good writer at all, you should look forward to rewriting. If you are a good writer at all, you rarely look at your work as “finished” or “perfect.” If you tell me your script is “amazing” and that “I’ll love it,” I already know we’ve got problems.
I wanted to talk this out a little because I have one of these dust-ups at least once a year. That’s my penance to pay for being open to new writers, I guess. But this applies to any art form. Two of my biggest moments of friction were with artists from other disciplines.
One promising high schooler sent me a link to his page of THIRTY SHORT FILMS, each of them shot by him in an afternoon. They all showed promise, but were also very crappy. When your kung-fu fighters are squaring off in a public park and haven’t even bothered to put on costumes, take a moment. Go prep. Spend time. I challenged this filmmaker to try a new tactic: Make ONE film, take six months to do it and make it the best thing he’s ever put on screen. Use crew and costumes and even effects. I proposed that if he put everything he had into ONE GOOD THING, he would be surprised how far it would take him as a calling card. He didn’t like that. It was easier to slap something together in an hour and post a caption with the clip that read, “I did this with no time and no money, imagine what I can do with more!”
I don’t want to imagine. And neither does a producer or investor. Show them — not only how you truly execute, but how you can follow through on a long-term project while being responsible with resources. But this young filmmaker was too precious with what he did and how he did it. We ended our long, long, long email exchange with an “agree to disagree” stance, since I just didn’t understand the fast-and-furious nature of his work. Good luck, my friend. Let’s see who does.
My other case study was a painter who wanted to get into concept art for feature films — so badly that he contacted me and offered to do some work for free. I had a big pitch coming up so I thought, “Why not?” The guy’s gallery was very good. But after one roughed-out pass on a piece, I asked if he could move a character to the foreground and add some other details to the landscape. I cited some other works for comparison. He did not like that. In a long email exchange, this painter reminded me that he has put on gallery shows — gallery shows! — of his work. He said that he should not have to take art notes from me, that he needs to show me what he can do apart from my meddling. We parted ways. Not used to notes? Good luck spending ONE MINUTE in this business, I told him.
The final case study is such an entertaining train wreck, it prompted this whole blog. Recently a producer got swept up in an email exchange with an unproven writer who was so entitled and full of himself, his responses border on mentally imbalanced. It is also a great example of how to NEVER get work in this town, no matter how talented you are. You can read the train wreck HERE. (Thanks Chris Jones.)
When you enter this business at even the lowest level, you may have to offer free work or demos or spec scripts. But apart from the art you are showing someone, you are also putting yourself on display. Can you take notes? Can you be directed to make changes and be open to collaboration, even if it goes against your original idea? Can you see your art as ever-changing? Or are you precious? Is it “perfect” the way it is?
I have to continually remind myself of this. Even when I’ve spent a lot of time on something, a new perspective will come along. I cannot be precious. I have to be willing to break the thing apart again, shake it up, even add a cute sidekick, for pete’s sake! Being a “genius” and actually getting something made are two very different things. The second takes a willingness to manage people, expectations and resources. And if someone else is paying for it, then show them you are listening to them. You don’t have to take every note or chase every trend… but lose the preciousness.
I’m currently directing a very cool feature that I can’t talk about yet, but I will soon. The most astounding thing about it is that it is an ORIGINAL STORY. Not based on anything. The movie will be the primary defining source material. It’s from an idea that two writers just came up with, or pulled “out of the air,” as I like to say.
As everyone knows in this business, a purely original project is a very rare thing and very difficult to get made. To have a brand to lean on, to have a “pre-awareness” of a property, seems to be a key component to any major genre film these days. I get it, these things cost a lot of money and you’ve got to minimize risks. Make no mistake, I don’t fault anyone for wanting to go see the next “Captain America” or the next “Transformers.” I enjoy big popcorn entertainment, even the kind based on stuff I already love. But I also constantly hear from common moviegoers that they would buy a ticket to something completely new — they just aren’t given the option very often.
It’s not like the creative community is lacking in original content — thousands of creators have well-developed stuff they are just waiting to make. They’re ready! It’s not the fault of the ticket buyers either — people have shown time and again that if a new, unproven film is good, they will go see it. The lack of original content and an obsession with brands rests with the studios and investors — also known as “the buyers.”
Buyers: I get it. You’re running a business here. But brands are not even “sure things” to base decisions on, as we have all seen time and again. Marketing and brand awareness may win you the first weekend, but a good movie wins the second, third and fourth weekend. The exponential effect of “buzz” or word-of-mouth trumps millions of dollars in marketing, every time. At the end of the day, “a good movie” is the only genre that works.
My only hope is that the buyers out there will run out of old brands and finally risk money on something unusual and unproven. There’s a lot of talk right now about the unstoppable, generation-crossing power of a brand like “Star Wars,” but people keep forgetting that a guy named George Lucas pulled that movie out of the air. Out of the air! It was a joke to most of Twentieth Century Fox. Only one exec there, Alan Ladd Jr., risked his reputation to greenlight and defend the $12M film. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is one of the biggest brands in the land. But it was a super-weird idea that two guys just pulled out of the air. It was so strange that Eastman & Laird had to self-publish the comic for years. Sponge Bob, Batman, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse. All of them came from some guy’s head. They just made them up one day. Out of thin air.
That is the place we have to pull from! That mysterious, thin-air place of new ideas.
I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said, but it bears repeating. It’s easy to talk about the big sturdy, franchise-making brands we have today, but they all came from that unknown, unpredictable place. The movies that are extraordinary and game-changing are the ones that scared most people at first… or confused them… or seemed like a big risk. Somewhere out there, some studio executives need to start rolling the dice again.
I know, I know… it’s not my money. But I wish it were. I see so much potential out there to be mined. Studios, we’re ready. We’ve got stuff. Make a new commitment this year: risk at least two out of the ten movies on your slate. Help us pull something out of the air.
There are so many things I am working on that I’d love to tell you about here… but I can’t yet. One is a major announcement that I’ll post soon. Until then, why not complain about Comic Con?
The San Diego Comic Con is a beast. We all know that. Ever since I was a teenager in Ohio, I heard about this wonderful utopia where a hundred thousand nerds got together with movie stars and filmmakers and celebrated every toy and comic and movie I’d ever obsessed over. Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve gone every year for eight years. I love it. Even with the increased crowds, sensory overload and long lines, I just embrace the crazy for four straight days. I’m the guy making final purchases on the exhibit floor on Sunday when they close the place down. So when I criticize or analyze what it has become, I’m doing it because I love it.
What’s been happening to SDCC is what happened to Sundance: it’s gotten so popular — and now wields so much promotional power for the industry’s following year — that it has become too big to be enjoyable for most. The fans feel like they are paying too much for panels they can’t get into and exclusives that disappear too quickly. The pros feel like they can’t even do any business or see any fellow professionals on panels because they can’t compete with 50,000 fans who are willing to sleep on the sidewalk to get into the same event. And even with professionals being comped a pass, many pros can’t even get online fast enough to secure a badge. That’s what’s amazing: a working comic book artist, screenwriter or even a major producer might miss out getting in. The feeding frenzy has gotten ridiculous and the pro badges sold out in 24 hours this year. I’ve heard that some disgruntled professionals have sworn off Comic Con and just won’t go anymore. The hurdles have begun to outweigh the benefits.
I was one of the lucky ones who got a badge… but I literally sat at my computer at 10:00 am on the pro registration day, in the exact same way the dweebs on “Big Bang Theory” did. I was counting down just like Sheldon Cooper, pouncing on the “enter” button like a trained squirrel.
So if the FANS aren’t happy and the PROS aren’t happy and they BOTH want to get more out of this event, I have a solution. It’s just a stab in the dark, and I am completely uninformed on the inner-workings of organizing something like this. So keep in mind, this is just one man’s uneducated opinion… but a thought that might change this madness:
What if Comic Con became TWO SEPARATE CONS? One for fans, one for pros?
They might be on two separate weekends, or just stretch the convention time into a whole week… then split the thing right down the middle. It would give everyone some breathing room, vendors would make tons more money, and so would the city. And heck, you might even be able to get a hotel within ten miles of the convention center! The panels could repeat themselves or be tailored slightly for fans vs. pros. In this era of niche marketing and narrow-casting, why is SDCC still trying to be all things to all people? Both fans and pros are feeling the friction… why not give them both what they want? I’m both a fan AND a pro, and it seems to placate a lot of concerns and complaints I hear from both perspectives.
And for those of you who might say the studios wouldn’t parade out as many stars and surprises for the pros as they would for the fans, I think they would. Look at ShoWest — put on exclusively for theater distributors. They bring out Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman and loads of exclusive clips, etc. What about NAB? Isn’t that just for broadcast professionals?
Why fail at serving both demos when you can spread out your reach and serve both demos in a much better way?
Two Comic Cons. That’s right. I said it. Maybe my idea isn’t sound, or it has logistical and financial problems I can’t see yet. Like I said, I’m no event planner. But unless Comic Con makes some kind of crazy, game-changing move, a lot of people are simply going to stop attending, and possibly start up conventions of their own.
Don’t bloat ’til you burst, Comic Con! I love you too much to see you explode and die.
I was recently a keynote speaker at The Big Picture Con in Atlanta, a gathering of both industry professionals and aspiring filmmakers. It was a great time to meet people and hear stories of what people are up to in film, especially in Georgia. The place is exploding with production — I had no idea! I also did an interview through Google’s new Hangout function with a radio station there. You can check out the replay below or the link HERE.
Howdy, Buckeroos. I’ve been speaking at a number of different events lately, offering any help or war stories I can to people trying to “make it happen” in this business. I just left a great Q & A at CBS Radford Studios tonight, hosted by The Greenhouse. I tried to say everything I could to offer equal parts inspiration and caution. I hope I said enough. There’s no one path and it can be daunting. It’s hard to help every young filmmaker know what to do in his or her unique situation. Every one of them wants to know how to gain a reputation in this town, or get an agent or raise funds for their project, or protect their idea or they ask about loads of business issues that are ever-changing. Every career has its unique set of circumstances and every person will find their path in their own way. So how can I really give any helpful answers?
Then it hit me on the way home — something I should have said tonight so I’ll say it here. If you’re wondering how to get through this business, I don’t need to complicate it for you. I think it just comes down to one simple thing:
This works if you’re a writer, director, actor, shooter, editor, set designer or puppet builder. It works if you’re a pastry chef.
If you are a creative person and you want a career creating, then just make stuff. Do what you do as much as possible. Do it at any level you can, big or small. Because if you make stuff and do it a lot, pretty soon you’ll be making GOOD stuff… And once you make GOOD stuff, people will NOTICE it… And once that happens, getting an agent gets a lot easier… And once you get an agent, that agent will be able to answer the 200 other questions you have, like how to get paid, what the town is looking for, how to retain ownership of your work, how to find funding or set meetings or pitch ideas, etc.
All of that comes from making stuff.
It works the other direction too: Look at any successful creator and reverse engineer their success. You can’t have a successful career without being well connected. You can’t be connected without getting good representation. You can’t get repped until you’re one of the best. And of course, you can’t be really good at anything until you do it lots and lots and lots.
What if you have no money or no contacts? You can still make stuff, even if it’s at the smallest level. A web series leads to a short film which leads to a feature. Writing one page leads to 100 pages. Raising 100 dollars leads to raising 10,000 dollars. Each step leads to the next level. But nothing happens until you take the very first, smallest step.
That’s the plan. Make something, repeat. Do this for ten years and things WILL happen for you. If you simply keep creating, you’ll get better at it and the answers to all the other details will follow.
Boom. Now my Q & A’s will probably get a lot shorter.
The massive, slow gears of film development take forever to turn. So sometimes it’s best to find other creative outlets. In between screenwriting gigs, I’ve been stealing a little time here and there to work in another medium and write a book. And now, after six years of tinkering on and off, I’ve finished it. Very exciting to have something new to talk about.
And by “talk about” I mean “tell you what I can.” I love sharing stuff here, but there’s an advantage to launching many creative endeavors using the element of surprise. If I don’t share everything right now, it’s because I’m using mystery to leverage some buzz and create the most successful situation for the material. What I can tell you is that this is a Young Adult adventure novel, it’s seventeen chapters, and it was loads of fun to write. For years this book was my “recreational writing,” but slowly the story evolved into something I’m very proud of and am very eager to share with the world. If you are a 10-14 year old kid (or you think like one), I think you’ll love this book. It’s an old-fashioned, swashbuckling pulp adventure story with lots of gadgets, humor and ridiculous cliffhangers.
As Dignan from “Bottle Rocket” might say, here are just some of the ingredients: A zeppelin, a frozen Russian sub, volcano sacrifice, a yak-powered riverboat, magnetic gloves, parachutes that go up, smell-vision goggles, a flying pocket watch & a lot of Mongolian mercenaries. The central character is an eccentric, brilliant and very unpredictable man named Dr. Henry Harrison Clockwise. He’s British, fussy, silly and addicted to mischief. I like to say he’s a combo of Doctor Who, Willy Wonka and Mary Poppins. This story is the first in what I hope will be a series of books with this character. In each book, he takes a variety of companions on globe-trotting treasure hunts around the globe and each book is narrated from the point of view of one of the companions. In this story, our narrator is a 13 year-old girl.
The extras and spinoffs for this book are exciting to think about, from an almanac of gadgets to an electronic version of the book that accesses new backstory content through your tablet. But it all depends on how the market receives the book. It’s in that “just hatched” stage right now where I am going out to publishers and studios to see if anyone bites. But the great thing about a book in this day and age is that I KNOW I will eventually be able to offer it to readers in some form, somehow.
Stay tuned and keep your telescopes trained. Dr. Clockwise is anything but predictable.