More Notes for New Filmmakers

As I keep saying...I've been in a blackhole of screening committee duties lately and I LOVE IT! My eyes don't love it so much but my brain is in overdrive seeing so much creative output & being so effing happy to be able to do this work! As I did last year, in a mildly contested post, I provided some tips that I find important to new, indie filmmaker's and this year I've decided to continue the tradition! Keep in mind, these are my own personal dos & don'ts: There are NO rules in the world of indie film! My computer broke at some point during the writing of this post so it's been kicking around in my brain for awhile now and, after finally seeing Spike Jonze's hazily beautiful Her, I thought that using this film as a sort of case study- both in how it works & how it doesn't work- would really help illustrate what I am trying to get at. These tips shouldn't really effect one's film but are just things to consider that might get lost in the hours of bleary-eyed editing, lighting, casting, directing & all the other aspects of the all-consuming-filmmaking-process!

1. Production Design. My understanding of Production Design is that it is the overall look & feel of a film project. From costumes, to ads, to credits, to sound- the overarching aesthetic decisions- which are all extremely important: it makes one's film instantly recognizable. The production design is the first thing that introduces an audience to a film (from ad campaign to trailer) and the last thing they see when they leave the theater (the musical choice piped over a particular font in the credits). I'm not saying all films have to have cohesive fonts, or a consistent soundtrack, or even a distinct overarching color palate. What I am saying is, think about your project as a whole- the look, the feel, the sound, the story- each piece is hugely interconnected and relies on the filmmaker along with the production designer to bring them together into a memorable experience. K.K. Barrett, the production designer behind Her, and many other expertly crafted designs such as Adaptation & Marie Antoinette, speaks of the not-so distant future User Interface they created for the film in this piece in Wired . When you read about just how huge and just how minute the detail Barrett considers, and the broad spectrum of sources he consults, it is downright daunting! Throughout my film fest screening, films with a strong Production Design stand out as more complete, more understanding of the fact that audiences are going to see this jumble of things happening on a screen in front of them and recognize that it is the filmmaker's job to make sense of it all.

2. Slow does not mean smart. I feel like a lot of the films I watched, especially in the documentary category, overused contemplative, quiet shots of people, or things, or barely moving landscapes- a thing that Her definitely poked some fun at as a hopeful documentarian Amy (Amy Adams) shows her rough cuts of her film. Rough cuts of a woman sleeping. Just sleeping. Nothing else. To which she goes on to verbally explain the reasoning. And to which her persnickety husband makes some suggestions (Yes,  I am the persnickety husband figure here!). Why make a movie? If you are taking nearly still, sometimes pretty, usually silent images, why choose to document them on film which is a medium that was made to solve the issue of the stagnant & silent frame, bringing life to the lifeless. The other problem with these sequences is that oftentimes the director seems to equate them with meaning: if you look at a picture of something long enough you will glean a larger idea from it. In terms of film though, this idea can easily become a tortured form of synecdoche. Sometimes staring at a static frame for a long while does allow it to become greater than the frame, revealing nuance, giving breathing room, but the timing between losing an audience's attention & making a statement is such a hard one to master, and an entire film that relies on this sort of minimalism is tough for an entire audience with widely varying attention spans...interest gives way to boredom by mere fractions of a second. Note: I just saw a few screeners in a row who made up for a lack in movement through sound. It was perfection!

3. The power of the LOG LINE/elevator pitch. This recent "How To" post over on indiewire offers some insight into how important your one line synopsis is to your film but I sort of disagree with it's idea to purely think in terms of narrative structure. Narrative structure IS important. Duh. But what's also important is: why are you making this? Why is this story (or if solely experimental than this image, sound, feel, emotion, whatever) so important to immortalize on film? I address this a lot on the blog I think, the knowing of one's intention with their project, but this year I noticed a lot of confusing, or experimental, or thin, or mysterious synopses that had little to no relation to the movie that followed. It was almost as if the core value or idea that the filmmaker was trying to convey in their log line had nothing to do with the story they chose to convey it with? I want to feel like I am entrusting the next hour and a half of my life to someone who knows what they are doing and why. What is it you want me to take from this film and what happens in it that conveys this? Not that I ever read a one-line synopses and held it against a film but a great one can help clarify the filmmaker's vision for the audience and for filmmaker. As for Her, I think the synopses floating around aren't exactly the best: (from imdb) A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need. Yes, this is what happens but my personal ideal log line would include why it is happening: blurring and questioning the lines of virtual and reality.  Or something like that, ya know?

4. Are you a Director? Or are you a screenwriter? Alright. So the writing in Her was pretty bad at times. There were some scenes that I really thought were just laughable in their attempts at heft (but that the rest of the audience seemed to buy soooo...?). It made me wish Charlie Kaufman had written it. (And that Spike Jones had directed Synecdoche, New York...) This article on The Awl points out some of the more obvious writing flaws of Her and to it I would like to add that people who decide to direct and write need to more objectively recognize their strengths (and disregard that they'll make less money if they are better at one of those things than both!).

Objectivity is difficult when one is the director/writer, you are interpreting your own words, a fact that I think can become super cerebral for a writer/director hybrid, especially in a fiction film, and allow for quality to sometimes suffer. One should hold their writing up to literary giants just as much as they are holding their filmwork up to auteurs. Be objective, let others read your work, hone one skill before taking them all on.  [Side Note: I think docs are much better at storytelling from a writer/director standpoint lately. A doc filmmaker is organizing their thoughts and other's thoughts-in image & word- into a coherent story, taking the pressure off of being the sole creator of an entire fictionalized universe. With a little research, it also seems that more and more documentaries are being aquired at film fests for remakes & re-edits, and in some cases even rights to an adaptation of the doc into a work of fiction. First time directors  recognize the difficulty in being the sole creator of their film and rely on the real world to fill in some of the more overwhelming aspects of first time filmmaking... will probably write more about this later since I am spiraling off topic...oops, sorry- but I think there is something about the new nature of storytelling that has come with filmmaking accessibility.]

5. DIY +  CGI = Crappy Continuity. When I think of Spike Jonze (like Michel Gondry and even Wes Anderson to a point) they seamlessly combine DIY (or the illusion of DIY) with CGI...soooo, I guess, this is why soooo many budding indie director's films I've watched this year try to do the same? But doing this is hard. Like, really hard. 1. The homemade feeling of things in Indiewood films aren't really homemade, they are usually made by teams of artists with the sole intention of being lit, shot, and produced for film. Karen O. was just nominated for an Oscar for the seemingly off the cuff ukele ditty sung by the protagonists of Her. Expensive, genius simplicity all 'round! 2. Films shot in real locations or in real seeming spaces in Indiewoods aren't always so, and even of they are a lot of effort went into their production. This piece from No Film School talks about the labored cinematography that went into shooting Her in real spaces. Your dorm room that is so small nearly all of the frame, from any angle, cuts off part of the scene, or your attempt at shooting on the streets of NYC without a permit? Not ideal. 3. Her really blended the real and the fake elements of the film so so well. It cost $20million to do this. Indy-indies that delve into the CGI rabbithole seem to use CGI like I used colorforms as a kid- dropping the Ghostbuster into a prexisting spooky house background that the Ghostbuster just didn't really fit into. It is sooo hard to integrate CGI or animation or whatever with the real elements of a film, especially with a low-ish budget.

4. The continuity factor is at play in all of these issues: a) does the visual or production choice make sense to shoot on film and b) does the visual or production choice make sense within the entire project. Yes or no. (Also I noticed an obscene amount of straight up shot to shot/editing continuity issues this year. Yo, stop gettin' sloppy! And don't say it's on purpose! It's usually not...) If corners are cut solely for budget I understand but cutting all the corners leaves you driving in a weird, nauseating, unwatchable circle...It's the details of thoughtful crafting- both by hand and by augmented hand- and the ability to craft within one's resources that really makes the difference between something being a programmable film by a director who understands filmmaking and something being a student film.

Totally unrelated to Her but...Stop putting hot girls on toilets in your movies! Is it supposed to be edgy? Or suggest a realness? Like " you never see people doing real gross, everyday things in movies" this is how real my movie is. Is it some fetish I don't get turned on by? Or some weird generational Freudian issue? What? Tell me! Seriously, I saw like four films that did this! And now there's Wetlands that's been making the Sundance image rounds lately too? WTF?! Enough. Also, I'm sick of sad sack white dudes in lead books & movies.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.