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”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Live-Tweet: COLLATERAL 10th Anniversary

8pm on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014. 

Join Bitter Script Reader and I as we live-tweet a screening of COLLATERAL on the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. 

We'll be using the hashtag #Collateral10 for all of our tweets.

Never seen COLLATERAL before? First of all, how? Second, join us for your first time. Watch it every year? Contribute to the experience with your own insight and responses. This is a chance for fans of one of the best films of 2004 to get together for this one time event.

Looking forward to it. And you better show up, or we're sending Vincent after you.