Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing a Better Chair: Moving Beyond The Craft of Screenwriting

This is a chair.
We all know a chair when we see it. However, if someone were to ask us what a chair is, we would all have different answers. Some of us would say that it is a thing with four legs and a seat and a back. Others might say that a chair is a piece of furniture. Still others might claim a chair to be a thing on which you rest.

We all know there are many different shapes and sizes of chairs out there yet they are all classified as a "chair." Movies today are like chairs in that sense. We all know there are many different ways to tell a story, but Hollywood would have us believe otherwise. They would prefer that all stories have the same design.

They may try to "paint" the story a different color (cinematography), use different wood (characters), make it smaller or larger (length and scope), but it's basically the exact same chair (story) as all of the others. No matter how the details are changed, the story structure stays the same; the design is unchanged (which is probably why you can watch a trailer and feel like you've already seen the movie).

When I first began as a screenwriter, I was not even aware of story structure. As a teenager I worked at a video rental store and had seen thousands of movies by then. I knew what I was doing... copying every single one of them.

Also a chair.
Not directly, but I stole concepts, story beats, even character traits from the mishmash of films that I loved. The result was an incredible Frankenstein of a story that also could have passed as a thesis from one of my International Studies classes. Go figure.

Still, I was hooked and I wanted to write another, better screenplay. So I started reading.

Google "how to write a screenplay" and within the first 5 results the two things emphasized the most are formatting and structure. To the fledgling writer, screenwriting appears more like a paint-by-numbers scheme than a form of artistic expression. Dogmatic adherence to design is preached and accepted from the start.

And like any good student, I began to focus on that design. Software took care of formatting so I dove into mastering the structure and quickly learned about the Monomyth. You know the Monomyth; aka The Hero's Journey aka The Paradigm aka The BS2.

As a beginning screenwriter, you can't miss it. The Monomyth is everywhere. It's given such reverence that I've heard stories about Hollywood execs tossing scripts without a central theme on page 5 and a "dark night of the soul" on page 75 into the trash. 

I started referring to screenwriting not as art but as a craft. Every story I imagined, every screenplay I developed had to fit within The Hero's Journey. I struggled to master the subtle nuances of it and over time I've become very comfortable with every step and stage. But I've also run up against its limits and, by now, have almost completely abandoned it.

Don't get me wrong, understanding the Monomyth is crucial for every storyteller. But it's simply a first step in becoming a fully competent screenwriter. For those at the beginning of their careers, reading books on screenwriting or taking a screenwriting course or workshop can really help you develop a basic understanding of screenwriting. And I think that collectively, we as filmmakers can agree that doing so is important. But the Monomyth only one kind of story and there are other types of stories out there. Stories from new voices that will entice and restore a trust in audiences that film isn't bereft of any good ideas -- told in unique and interesting ways.

And yet reality indicates otherwise. A cursory glance at the majority of films being pitched and sold and made today makes it very clear that the same stories are being told over and over again. This is not just a Hollywood problem either. It's across the board from indies to tentpoles. When your story follows the beats of the "Hero's Journey" then you are fundamentally telling the exact same story each time, no matter how differently you color it.

So, in my opinion, it comes down to this. Do you see screenwriting as a form of art or of craft?

Obviously, a lot has been said about the distinction between art and craft (Great TED Talk about the subject) but, ultimately, I believe that the distinction comes simply out of an adherence to reproduction. If you are making something, be it a vase or a story, in order to look and fit into an agreed upon model, then you are not making piece of art, you are making piece of craftwork.

This is not to discount the value of craftwork. It is a very honorable thing and craftsmen and women provide all manner of amazing goods that we enjoy and cherish throughout generations - like beer.

Still a chair.
But art is about putting a personal touch on the basic form. About expressing ones own, unique point of view on the world. About pushing the craft beyond and into metaphor, interpretation and meaning.

Just like everyone knows what a story is, doesn't mean that everyone's idea of a story is the same.

Yet movies remain stuck. Unable and unwilling to pry itself free from the desire to mitigate risk through reproduction of the banal. The audiences have already spoken. We just had the worst summer box office since 2006. Clearly movies are losing the war for everyone's attention.

What are you going to do about it? Meanwhile, I've got this couch I'm working on...

Travis Oberlander is a writer & producer who also has been working closely with CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker. Travis co-wrote the cyber-bridges for Level 26: Dark Revelations, the third installment of Zuiker’s digi-novel trilogy. In 2013, he produced Layover, the first in the LAX Trilogy with his long-time collaborator, Joshua Caldwell and in 2014 he wrote and will produce the second installment in the series Assassin.

In addition to his writing and producing, Travis has over six years of experience managing social media teams, developing digital strategy and overseeing various programs for major brands such as Unilever, Walmart and Beam Global. Prior to that, he launched the award-winning social media division of Media Temple, a leading web-host. Follow Travis on Twitter: @tobewan

Monday, October 13, 2014


Seventeen months ago I set out to make a feature film for $6000. A year later, in May of 2014, we had our World Premiere in competition at the Seattle International Film Festival and we were nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award. And today, we are releasing LAYOVER via our own direct distribution platform on

There, you can rent or download a copy of the film, DRM-free, with various content bundles.

We decided to go with our own distribution because ultimately it was the best deal for us. All the proceeds from the film go to the filmmakers. The investor, the actors, the producers, the crew and myself. Thus, you are directly contributing towards our ability to continue to make films. So help support indie film and get your copy of LAYOVER today.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Werner Herzog on "Going Rogue"

Over the past couple weeks (when I had time) I've been reading Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed which should be recommended for any aspiring filmmaker. I've really connected with his point of view on the subject and reading this book has make clear my feelings on making films and being a filmmaker. It's an incredible book for those who find themselves outside of the fence and I highly recommend it.

One passage I really struck and inspired me. This is what Werner has to say about what it means to "go rogue."

"Always take initiative. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting a shot you need. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey. Beware of the cliche. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief. Learn to live with your mistakes. Study the law and scrutinize contracts. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern. Keep your eyes open. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it. There's never an excuse not to finish a film. Carry bolt cutters everywhere. Thwart institutional cowardice. Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Take your fate into your own hands. Don't preach on deaf years. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory. Walk straight ahead, never detour. Learn on the job. Maneuver and mislead, but always deliver. Don't be fearful of rejection. Develop your own voice. Day one is the point of no return. Know how to act alone in a group. Guard your time carefully. A badge of honor is to fail a film-theory class. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema. Guerrilla tactics are best. Take revenge if need be. Get used to the bear behind you. Form clandestine Rogue cells everywhere."

I mean, how badass is that?!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Read the Production Draft of DIG

With my short film DIG now available to watch on Seed & Spark (and a Staff Pick!) I thought I would share with you the production draft of the script along with some shooting notes I made on it. These notes do not contain the full breadth of the work I did to prepare but are really more reminders of things I wanted to exercise, capture or remember in the middle of shooting.

For those of you new to following me and new to the blog my writing, production and post-production process on the film was pretty well documented on here. Click this link, scroll to the bottom and then read your way up. :-) As you can tell, I have no problem being up open about my process if you can learn something from it (and maybe this isn't worth anything).

But I don't think I've ever actually provided the script for anyone to read. So here you go:

And tweet me your thoughts @Joshua_Caldwell. I'm curious to hear what you think. 

The script was co-written by Travis Oberlander and I. However, for the final draft prior to production I went through and revised it "for production." What does that mean? It means moving the script away from something to be read and make it your guide for shooting the film.

One of the things you might notice is what people refer to as overwriting. Lots of character descriptions, internal thoughts, etc. Well, my thing is this: a script is not a piece of literature. It's a blueprint and moving beyond the idea of a script being for a reader, whatever helps you build the house, do it. The original non-production draft of the script was about 18 pages. This production draft is 26. 

Since the script is essentially my blueprint as a director why not put in there everything you need to make the best film possible? Who gives a fuck about "rules?" So, prior to production, I really go through and add in a lot of details I don't want to forget or character description or internal psychology, whatever I feel is necessary to help me make the best movie I can.

There's the reader draft and then there's the blueprint you use to make the film. They're different things. One can be loosely interpreted as literature and the other is really whatever you want it to be so that you, your cast and your crew know what it is you're trying to accomplish.

Food for thought.

Additionally, I posted these on Twitter a while back and thought I would include them. Here's two pages of my shotlists for DIG. You can check them out and compare them to scene in the script.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Nicholl V. Blcklst Feedback (Updated)

UPDATE 8/27/14: With this post definitely gaining some traction, I want to clarify a few things:

1) I posted this following Franklin Leonard's call to post the comments side by side. Objectively, that's what the top half of this post was intended to show, how three different readers responded to my script.

2) The bottom "commentary" part was me musing about my experience paying for the Blcklst evaluation in the first place. I am certainly not comparing, from a feedback perspective, Nicholl vs. Blcklst. As disappointed as I felt about the BlckLst feedback, the Nicholl feedback is pretty much useless (unless, of course, I just wanted to hear how amazing Will and I are as writers, which I didn't). 

3) This tipped off a really fantastic conversation on Twitter about paying for reads, etc, etc and I just want to say that the Blcklst provides a really great service to writers. What I was expecting from a paid evaluation wasn't in line with what evaluations typically provide. I don't want to be the guy saying "Blcklst evaluations are terrible and you should never pay for them." But I did find it to be a waste of money and having done it, probably wouldn't do it again. That's me. I didn't think the feedback I got was worth the money, considering I have other avenues of getting that feedback for free.

And now, to the original post.

With the Nicholl quarter-finalists receiving reader feedback this past week, Franklin Leonard of the Blcklst asked writers to post those comments in conjunction with any evaluations they've gotten from the Blcklst.

My feature script, STATE OF DECEPTION, did not make the quarterfinals of Nicholl but it did come close, placing in the next group of 100 scripts. As such, we received three reads on the script and were sent reader feedback.

So, here we go. Nicholl comments first, then Blcklst. If anyone is interested in reading the script, I'd be happy to pass it along.


Comment 1:

This script brings a personal level of engagement to the political and religious controversy that holds Palestine in it's grip. As children, Aaron, a Jewish boy, and Habib and Sharif, Arab boys, are very close friends. Aaron even goes to jail for several years in exchange for helping Sharif's family. Aaron is released on the grounds of becoming a mole for IDF in Hassad, and discovers his friends are much more dangerous than he ever imagined.

This is a well-done story, adding human faces and emotions to the eternal struggle in Palestine. There is some nice character growth, and depth, which lends itself nicely to the escalating stakes that take place. There is a solid three act structure with scenes heightening stakes and tellings us about the characters. The story is effective in making the story relatable to Western sensibilities, and reminds the reader of all those individuals that are victims of circumstance rather than religious fervor.

There is a certain something about this one that shows talent for making larger issues personal, characters real, and situations suspenseful. This is nicely done, and it works well for me. There's some magic here in the story telling, and while the writing isn't overly descriptive, it's concise and effective.

Comment 2:

Normally I want to run for the hills as soon as I see a script set in the Middle East. I have no patience or interest in them usually, and they all feel like the same movie being placed in front of me over and over again. But this script was different. It felt like a story about a man -- it could be ANY man -- who made choices and must now deal with the ramifications. The politics of the movie are kept squarely in the background, which is perfect. The story then becomes about people. And the writer has done a good job of making the people relatable, without sacrificing the arena within which the story is set.

The writing here is really pretty good. The script was a breeze to read, and when the characters spoke in a different language, the writer not only had the translation, but also the original wording -- and scripted it in a way that it never slowed the reader down. The dialogue in general was top notch, and moved at a solid clip. It wasn't overwritten, or underwritten. The structure could have used a little work, though. It felt like the writer let the script breathe just a little too much. Not a ton, but if felt a little lengthy at times. And I often found myself waiting for the next bump-up to happen.

The story here is solid and well thought out, though there are moments when I found myself a little unclear as to what was going on in the moment. The craft was very, very solid. A strong piece of writing. The structure was a little loose as I said above. The characters were very well executed, and their dialogue was (for the most part) top notch. It was an original idea and there was certainly magic floating all around.

This was a solid script, and even though it's not my cup of tea per se, I really did enjoy it... and that should say something.


Settings are rich, colorful, and bring to life locations which are, for most people, simply familiar names in the news. Meticulously researched. Aaron deals with plenty of conflict, both physical and mental. Moments of tension, action, and violence keep the pace moving. Character relationships are strong and believable, especially Majed and Aaron. Action is clear, violent, and intense.

Once they arrive in Gaza, it slows a great deal and meanders for too long. Though Gaza is well represented, it hurts the momentum built up to that point. Overly happy, unrealistic ending, with everyone living at the beach in the epilogue. Some of the research is forced in with monologues and characters telling Aaron things he should already know about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Underwhelming, action oriented climax, whereas it could have been something personal and tense.

A good story with strong writing, but due to the Middle Eastern subject matter and principals, it's a tough sell for audiences who get enough of this struggle in the news. But the writers deserve plenty of attention for the crafting of this intelligent, entertaining story.

Now, the evaluation I purchased from the Blcklst was the first time I had ever done it and to be honest, I was underwhelmed. While the weaknesses highlighted by the commenter are definitely right on, I don't know, it felt like it wasn't worth the $50. I feel like I could have had a friend read it and give me the exact same feedback. I wasn't looking for high praise but I guess I was looking for more detail? A deeper critique of the script? 

It did make me far less likely to pay for an evaluation again because I just don't think it was worth the money. Clearly, others feel the differently and have gotten feedback that greatly helped them improve their script (and not that this won't) but I have too many other options that provide a more detailed response for free.

Curious to hear from others who may feel the same way. Have you purchased feedback from The Blcklst? What was your experience with it?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on Short Films

Last night, following a screening of short films at a festival, including my own, I had some thoughts on what I saw, which I "ranted" about on Twitter. For those who missed it, I created a Storify of the tweets which I've embedded below. Enjoy!

Monday, August 18, 2014

GUEST POST: @MysteryGrip on Film School

The following is a guest post from the person behind the @MysteryGrip account on Twitter. Last week, he/she ran a series of tweets regarding whether or not one should attend film school. I thought it was an intelligent argument and told her/him I'd be glad to host a blog post on the topic if they wanted to expand on their thoughts. So, without further ado, here's MysteryGrip on Film Schools.

Before we start I wanted to thank Joshua Caldwell for inviting me to write this piece. His Blog and Podcast embody the spirit of this article and are perfect examples of the free resources available to those who are interested in the film industry.

Thanks for having me, Joshua. And thank you for the work you do with “Hollywood Bound and Down”. And with that said...

What do I mean when I say, “Film School”?

To me, “Film School” means any two to four year undergraduate program that results in a major or diploma in “Film”,  “Communication”, “Fine Arts”, or some combination of these terms. I also am referring to Masters Programs like the 2 to 3 year MFA degrees that USC offers.

My opinion doesn't apply to Business and Law degrees relevant to financing, marketing, and legal jobs; short term continuing education courses; or specialized training and seminars.

So... Can “Film School” be a good thing for you?

Absolutely. If you WANT to go to film school then you should definitely go. It can be a fantastic life experience; be a great source of knowledge; and can provide networking opportunities that may open doors for you down the road.

BUT, do you NEED to go to Film School in order to break in or have any measure of success?

No. You do not.

Pack your bags and come on out. Your life is waiting for you here in Los Angeles. (Yes, there are other production hubs, but Los Angeles will always be “Hollywood” to me.)

Quite simply, it comes down to “WANT” versus “NEED”. And I think this is an extremely important distinction when you are deciding if you should spend many thousands of dollars (10s of thousands for some schools) and commit years of your life to a formal program.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have an undergraduate degree (which I don’t use), but I never went to school to study “film”. And in my twenty plus years in the biz, no one has ever asked me for my credentials. Nor have I wanted to see anyone else’s. We’re all too busy trying to make a movie.

Think of Film School like Military Boot Camp and movie making like being deployed in a war zone. Your training will help, but nothing can prepare you for the real thing.

So… Why don't you need to go?

For those of you that want to work “Below-the-Line”, i.e. shoot, pull focus, grip, gaff, production design, sound mix, drive, edit, production manage, costume, makeup, coordinate, AD, and so on; EVERY ONE of these crafts can be learned on the job.

Yes, you can learn the basics in school. But, to really learn and grow into a skilled professional, the best classroom is a legitimate film set, production office, or post facility.

Let’s look at the Grip Department as an example. School MAY teach you the basic equipment and an overview of the Grip Department. But, it won't teach what we truly do.

School won't teach you how to rig cameras, build towers of truss, assemble and operate cranes, push dollies, tie knots, rig up high, operate and master the enigmatic C-Stand, find the best places to nap, be first in line for lunch, or the many hundreds of other things we do.

Ironically, I got my start working on other peoples' Student Films; their tuition, my classroom. From there I graduated to ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-low budget projects. We had one bottle of water from which we all had to drink. (Okay, there was more water. BUT, IT WAS WARM!)

Meager food options aside, we had more equipment and more opportunities to try new things and learn new skills. Also, there will almost always be a few veterans on these projects who are happy to share their knowledge and teach you a few tricks.

From there I began to get higher paying jobs until one day I got into the Union. Now, I work on your favorite movies and TV shows. I date supermodels, drive a Ferrari and sleep on a bed of cash.* By financial standards, I have “made it”.

*(have a wife; drive a sensible car; not a millionaire, but am debt free AKA no student loans)

The example of the grip department can be applied to every other craft. You want to be a DP, grab a camera start shooting. Buy books, experiment, shoot a short. Want to design costumes? Intern at a costume house, sketch, shadow professionals, work on any project you can.

Start at the bottom working for free, learn the craft, and if you’re good at what you want to do then you will progress. People will want to bring you on the next job or refer you to others.

However, hard work is not a guarantee for success. You MUST also have a modicum of talent in order to succeed. Although some manage to fail their way up the ladder, but that is another topic.

“What if I don't want to work Below-The-Line”?

Maybe you don't want to be a makeup artist, FX guy, DP, or prop guy. Maybe you think the mind numbing repetitive drudgery of being a grip is not something you would wish on your worst enemy. (This would not be an entirely unfair assessment.)

You know that you want to be a writer, director, or producer and nothing else will do. Well, I am here to tell you that you DO have the option of jumping head first into the deep end.

That said, for producers and directors, I would HIGHLY recommend that you spend time on film sets in as many positions as you can before you make your first movie. This will be essential experience that will help you become better directors and producers.

For directors, the benefit is learning what the crane and dolly can do to better design your shots; what it takes to do a stunt; how long a reset takes with a lot of elements and so on. If you know what the crafts can do you will know what tools you have in your tool box.

For producers, the benefit is learning what gaffer tape costs, what the Best Boy does, what a forced call is, and that you need sunscreen for Day Exteriors and heaters for Night. Knowing what everybody does and what everything is a major step in becoming a successful producer.

But, if you're ridin' hell for leather and you just GOTTAMAKEAMOVIERIGHTNOW! then go do it. It will probably be harder because let's face it; you have no idea what the fuck you're doing. But, that's okay. Not knowing should not stop you from trying.

Want to produce? Get together with a writer and a director and put together a project. Your first one will be fantastic tragedy of mistakes. Your second one will be better. Rinse repeat until you are Jerry Bruckheimer. It's a reductive example, but still a valid one.

There are so many people out there wanting to shoot something, but have no idea how to do it. Be the person that makes it happen for them. They learn, you learn. Maybe one day in the future you are both sharing the stage accepting an award.

If you want to direct, make a short that is proof of concept of your feature or pilot. There is so much access to equipment and software that didn't exist when I was coming up. You can shoot movies on your phone and cut them on your laptop.

With crowd funding sites like Seed & Spark access to financing has become easier. It's not a guarantee. Some projects won't resonate or if you half ass your campaign then no one will donate. But, if you “sell” a story that people want to see then you stand a good chance to get funded.

Writers, write. A lot. All the time. Every day. Then get solid feedback from people. Not your parents, a significant other, or anyone who's going to give a “Gold Star” read. But, people who are willing to constructively tell you, “This sucks. Here's why.”

School can teach you 3 Act structure, the Hero’s Journey, story arcs, character arcs, subtext, and all the technical buzzwords that go into writing a technically proficient script.

But, it can’t teach you how to write well. To create great characters that people remember. To put your story first and action second. How to put life and soul into your work. Or how to take notes or accept help. You only learn that by doing it repeatedly, growing each time you do.

What if you want to learn, but don't have the money?

There is so much FREE FILM SCHOOL out there in the form of blogs, podcasts, websites, and industry professionals on Twitter. (I'll link some of them at the end of this piece). And hundreds, if not thousands, of books. Many of which can be borrowed from a friend or library.

Ultimately, if you truly are an artist who has the drive to create then you will. If you were meant to write, direct, produce, shoot, costume, grip, cater, design, pull focus then you will. You will do whatever you have to because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t.

But, I feel obliged to warn you, many of you will not win the Hollywood lottery. You know the one I mean. The one where you accept the Oscar, marry the actor/actress, have a zillion dollars and ride off into the sunset in your fantasy car.

In fact, many will fail and ultimately quit. Some will do okay, others pretty well. But, only a few will win that lottery. It really all depends on your personal goal for success.

Brutal truth, school or no school, the Entertainment Industry can, and most likely, will be difficult, frustrating, and depressing. At times, we're just carnies with better catering.

But, it's not all doom and gloom. It can also be wonderful, fulfilling, and inspiring. I imagine that's why you're reading this article. A film or show touched you in some way and now you just have to be in show business. And that’s fantastic.

And if you're crazy enough to join this circus then you will see and do things others only dream about. You never know where this business will take you.

But, wherever you go, you don't need a diploma to get there.

A FEW of the MANY Blogs, Podcasts, & Websites (Twitter Folk are too numerous to list)

Some of these are specific to a craft. And some of these provide attitudes and philosophies that can be applied across the board. All are good.

The Anonymous Production Assistant
The Blackboard
The Blacklist
Bitter Script Reader
Brian Koppelman
Bob Saenz
Chicks Who Script
David Bordwell's Site on cinema
Doug Richardson
Go Into The Story
Hollywood Bound and Down
John August & ScriptNotes
Ken Levine
No Film School
Seed & Spark
“So you want to be a writer?” 

“Why Paul Thomas Anderson Dropped Out of Film School”