A Dreamer Walking

Thoughts From Tarkovsky – The Ever-Changing World

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2016

It is a grave, I would even say, fatal, mistake to try to make a film correspond exactly with what is written on paper, to translate onto structures that have been thought out in advance, purely intellectually. That simple operation can be carried out by any professional craftsman. Because it is a living process, artistic creation demands a capacity for direct observation of the ever-changing material world, which is constantly in movement.”  – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

This is just one of countless insights I have found from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, Sculpting in Time. The quote is extra relevant today since there are so many new tools being developed in order to plan out stories, scenes, and even specific shots in advance. Film demands a curtain amount of structure. The very definition of a “frame” suggests structure. Yet, more then any other artistic medium, filmmaking rewards those who are able to break away from the inherent structure of film and adapt to the ever-changing world around us.

I have been in the process of creating several short documentaries. Last year a friend and I made a 20 min documentary on a clinically blind 91 year old woman who walked a mile and a half to church every Sunday. One of the most daunting aspects was the absence of a script. Unlike with fictional filmmaking I was not allowed to create a story before going to shoot. All I could do was hope to find little moments in the process of making the film and put them together in the end to tell a complete story.

What the inability to use structure demanded of me was to observe. I couldn’t rely on any per-conceived ideas. I needed seek out the truth each day, in every moment I captured. Even in the interviews there were contradictions between the characters we covered. Instead of looking at what was said, I found the greatest truths were revealed through mall things, like a hint of a smile or a movement in the eyes; things I would never even think of let alone know how to write into a script.

In the process of making the doc I became less and less interested in telling a specific story. I told my partner I didn’t want this to be about a 91 year old who had all sorts of insights to pass down to younger generations. I didn’t want this to be a doc about a 91 year old who was about to die. I simply wanted it to be about a person who happened to be 91 and let her tell us the rest of the story.

In the end we were able to create a story out of the pieces our subject gave us. But the story had less to do with getting to specific answers and more to do with going on a journey. For a brief 20 minutes we let the audience take a walk with a 91 year old lady and discover a few divine insights before departing. Because we had not yet come to any conclusions before filming we were able to discover insights none of us by ourselves would have ever made.

A beauty of filmmaking is numerous people, if allowed, contribute to the whole of the story. If we structure our story too much we disallow the individual contribution of the person directing the film, the individual holding the camera, or man portraying the character. The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the ability to go beyond what is on the page and bring new insights to the table. We must have an unified vision, a similar journey we want to go on, but its expression need not be limited to one voice. As a unified group we can get to far greater places than we can as individuals.

Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy – Screenwriters – 127 Hours

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 29, 2014

Danny Boyle

I am not posting this to talk about how great of a visual it is. Although I want to point out really quickly how director Danny Boyle is using the rule of thirds in the way he frames this piece. The main character Aron is placed perfectly at the right third of the frame and his eyes are at the top third of the frame which is considered the most pleasing visual placement a character could be placed. Our eyes go to him right away. The digital camera screen also represents another framing device to focus us.

The reason for posting this image is to talk about how brilliant of a writing device Aron’s digital camera was for telling the story of 127 Hours (2010). For those who don’t know 127 Hours is a movie based on a true story about Aron Ralston who got his arm wedged between two rocks in the Utah Canyons. Most of the movie takes place with just Aron trying to get out of the nasty situation he found himself in. This kind of situation sounds very un-cinematic really and would be a hard sell for a studio to finance. The only reason Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy were able to get the financing is because they had both just earned a huge box office an Oscars for their last movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008). This movie could have easily have become boring in a hurry. Most of it revolves around just one character who is stuck in one place. Audiences usually rely on changing environments and character interactions to boost their interest. Danny Boyle and his crew needed to find a way to keep this situation interesting and let us know what is going on inside Aron’s head. Where in most situations the audience can get a clue about the psyche of a character through how he or she interacts with other characters Aron is by himself. Thus in comes the digital camera.

The digital camera is actually an item the real Aron had when he got stuck. The writers Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy were able to see some of the videos Aron had shot from his time stuck in the canyon. However, Boyle and Beaufoy were less interested in re-shooting exact footage of what Aron shot and more interested in using the digital camera as a tool to tell their story. During the movie Aron begins to turn on the camera periodically to give updates of his situation. We are first exposed to Aron’s more practical side. He explains how he has tried to get out, how his body is feeling, and how much water he has left. After a time Aron begins to go inward. He begins to talk about how stupid he was to not leave a note for where he was going. He begins to explore the idea he might not get out alive and uses the camera to express some of his regrets and say his final goodbyes. By doing this we get inside Aron’s head and are able to track his arc. The more malnourished Aron gets the more vulnerable he is with the audience. When he is giving his updates Aron is staring the audience directly in the face. The term used when a character does this is breaking the fourth wall. By doing this a special connection is created between the audience and Aron. The brilliant thing is the writers found a way to break the fourth wall without making us feel their main character is addressing an alternate universe like you see in most movies where they break the fourth wall – such as House of Cards and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Beaufoy said they would not be able to tell the story if they didn’t have Aron’s digital camera. The logs Aron makes serve so many different purposes. We also see the camera’s battery slowly going down suggesting there is only a limited time Aron has left. The great thing about movies like 127 Hours is it forces you to think outside the box. The goal is to allow the audience in so they can feel they are part of the Story. With Aron’s digital camera we were able to see Aron at his most vulnerable. It just goes to show working with limitations can be the inspiration for the most creative solutions.

Andrew Stanton- An Observation- Writing Screenplays

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 17, 2012

I have started several screenplay’s in my life and have pretty much been scared off of all of them. Of course I tell myself I am going to come back, but usually I never do. I think a lot of it has to do with my insecurity as a writer. I don’t think I am good enough. I don’t think I can ever be smart enough to write for several different characters all of whom have different perspectives and intellects. I can never do enough research. I can never express myself in the poetic way I see so many other fine writers express themselves.

One of the writers I look up to is Andrew Stanton. He helped write the majority of the Pixar films. His stories are superbly structured. Everything is preparing the audience for the punch line. He knows how to put us in suspense through doing the unpredictable. He knows how to create characters with depth.  And his stories are always imaginative and unique while also being reflective of undeniable truths we see in everyday life. He has created two masterpieces himself in Finding Nemo and Wall-E while also helping directors like Pete Docter, Lee Ulkrich, and John Lasseter set their stories in the right direction. I don’t think anyone at Pixar would deny that Stanton is a great writer, except perhaps Stanton himself.

Knowing that Stanton is one of the lead writers for one of the most creative studios in Hollywood, you would most likely be surprised to hear that Andrew Stanton has said himself that he doesn’t really like to write and doesn’t consider himself to be very good. He dreads the time his screenplays are read out loud and he never feels like they are finished. He did not go to school for writing. His only experience has been on the job. The only way he feels it is good enough is through rewriting; not just once but rather dozens of times.

Stanton has never treated screenwriting like it was a piece of art. To him it is just a step to something great. When we treat writing as though it is just another step we are freed up to really try our best and fail miserably. Stanton has described screenplays as the screen authority that commands to be followed. It is a cinematic direction manual. It is not for the audience to see, it is for the people who are making the movie to see. His philosophy is to get something onto paper so he can begin to rewrite and refine his work. Once Stanton gets his work out there others are able to help. Pixar happens to have some of the best story helpers in the business. The Brain Trust is not afraid to be blunt with their writers and directors. They help Stanton’s writing go from good to great.

When starting a screenplay the only person you should try to satisfy is yourself. Create the story you want to create. You can read all the books there are on screenwriting, you can do months of research, and you can spend all your money on the most state of the art writing equipment. All of this however is not going to guarantee confidence. The value of writing is that it allows us to put what is in our head onto paper. Don’t treat screenwriting as anything more then a way to get your ideas out there, in a structured way, so you can improve them. After you have something you are able see and show others, you can start to refine. You will never know how good you are until you start doing it.

Invisible Ink- Simplicity

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 12, 2011

In Invisible ink Chapter 2 we are introduced to the Seven easy steps to a better story.  In this post I will not be repeating the “seven easy steps”. To hear about them please buy the book. The underline point Brian McDonald was trying to make in the chapter however was a good one. He expressed his frustration with writers who usually try to create a overly complicated story.

What makes for a overly complicated story is when the writer tries to bring more plot into the story then what is actually needed. Simplicity is usually key when developing a story. Your job is to not lose the audience on the ride you are taking them on. You entertain the audience not through creating a twist at every corner but rather digging deeper into the story you do have no matter how simple it might be. You can have the most complicated plot imaginable, if you do not create a connection with your characters to the audience however, nobody will go along for the ride.

One of the masters at creating a connection between audience and character was Walt Disney. Hardly any Walt Disney movie was heavy in plot. He had simple beginnings, middles, and ends in almost all his movies. What Walt cared about was the connection between the audience and his characters. Walt was one of the first to push the cartoon industry into developing character personalities. In some of Disney’s first full length animated films, such as Pinocchio and Bambi, the first half hour involves hardly any plot at all. He just allows us to be introduced and get connected with his characters.

At the beginning of Pinocchio we are introduced to the cynical Jiminy Cricket and see him observe Pinocchio being turned to life. The whole movie is character driven. Walt does not do anything without the purpose of helping us understand Pinocchio more. The story line is simple; a toy puppet who wants to become a real boy. The first act consists of us understanding the toy maker Geppetto’s wish to have a real boy and seeing Pinocchio come to life to potentially fulfill that wish. The second act consists of Pinocchio’s wrong turns in his pursuit of becoming a real boy. The third act is about Pinocchio finally realizing his mistakes and setting out to save his father from Monstro, the whale. As a result Pinocchio sacrifices everything. The blue fairy comes and revives Pinocchio and turns him into a real boy creating the happily ever after ending.

Let me break it down for you. In the first act we are introduced to the environment and the characters. As Brian McDonald puts it, “It tells the audience everything they need to know to understand the story that is to follow”. In the second act the story actually begins. Everything should be cause-and-effect based on what happened at the end of act one. In Pinocchio the end of act one was hearing Pinocchio’s ambition to earn the right to become a real boy. The second act consists entirely of the mistakes Pinocchio makes in his efforts. If you are thinking it in visual terms, the second act consists of the climb to the top of the mountain.

The third act is when the character makes it to the top of the mountain only to find out he needs to face a dragon in order to survive. In Pinocchio’s case it was a whale. The third act begins at what ever point sets off the chain reaction for the climax of the picture. In Pinocchio you can say the third act begins when Pinocchio sets out to find his father. After defeating Monstro the whale and saving his father there is one scene showing Pinocchio being turned into a real boy and Jiminy Cricket closing the book to a happily ever after ending. As McDonald says, the key is to not have too much story after the climax of the film, just enough to let us all know life goes on.

The Pinocchio story was not overly complicated. As I said before, Walt was an expert at simplicity in his plots. However this does not mean the movie was easy to make. Disney and his artists worked very hard to figure out the meaning behind the stories he was telling. Creating meaning is actually the hardest part of storytelling. We as storytellers need to have something relevant to say.  I will touch up more on this subject in my next Invisible Ink post.

Instead of putting extra time into making a story more complicated, find ways to simplify it. Simplicity is key. What the audience wants is an interesting world to explore and characters to get to know. Understanding this is crucial. Plot can often get in the way of these things.

Just like the drawing on the top of the post, you must get rid of all the lines that are not necessary for telling the story you want to tell. With the medium of animation in general the filmmaker’s job is not to create a realistic replica of life. The filmmaker’s job is to simplify until all we see is a few lines that describe the characters and environments on screen. This simplicity allows the audience to follow the characters’ movements more easily and not get distracted by the backgrounds. Storytellers could learn a lesson from the medium of animation. All animation is, is a few lines that move creating the illusion of life. All storytelling is, is a few words put together in order to let our imaginations run free. Too many lines or too many words can ruin it all.

Andrew Stanton- Screenwriting Expo

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 27, 2011

You really do not get better then this. This is a recording of Andrew Stanton talking many years ago at the Screenwriting Expo. Basically Andrew breaks down story development through talking about mistakes he and Pixar made from Toy Story all the way to Finding Nemo. It is a brilliant lecture. Often you learn better through mistakes then through success. All the Pixar movies that have come out so far ran across problems somewhere in their development process that needed fixing. This is a lecture all about the problems Pixar had with their movies and how they were able to work through those problems to create some of the best animated films ever made. Andrew Stanton has come out of nowhere to astablish himself as one of the greatest screenwriters in the film business. I would strongly suggest any filmmaker out there to take notes. Enjoy!

 

DP/30 Slumdog Millionaire Director and Writer

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 17, 2011

If you look to the right in the Blogroll section you will see I have a link to Movie City News’  DP/30 section. The DP/30 section of Movie City News consists of dozens of thirty minute interviews of some of the top filmmakers in Hollywood. I ran across a especially insightful interview of  the director and writer of the award winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. The director is Danny Boyle, someone who I have just began to study. I hope to have some papers up on him soon. The writer is Simon Beaufoy, a critically acclaimed screenwriter who won an academy award for his screenplay of Slumdog Millionaire. You do not see interviews much better then this one. These filmmakers are very upfront about their philosophy on filmmaking and they give us some very good information about the film industry and their personal process. I especially liked hearing what Danny and Simon thought of going to India to film the movie and the energy that they felt they caught. They talk about how filming in India changed their entire way of looking and filmmaking. We also see the passion Danny has for filmmaking and we hear about the trust he puts into the screenplay. Slumdog Millionaire had a great partnership between writer and director which resulted in a incredible movie. I hope you enjoy and find this interview as informative and as enjoyable as I did.

Taxi Driver-Extra Features Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 27, 2011

Taxi Driver:

Collectors Edition 2-disc DVD Review:

Martin Scorsese On Taxi Driver: 8.5 out of 10: This is a very good 16 minute interview with Martin Scorsese. He explains his feelings on the project as best as possible. Martin talks about why he wanted to direct Taxi Driver and what he got out of it. He also goes into detail on what influenced him. Martin names several directors, from Francesco Ross all the way to Alfred Hitchcock, as being strong influences for Taxi Driver. This feature is not about how Martin approached each shot or how he got the film accomplished. The feature does have a tremendous amount of information of what Taxi Driver meant to Scorsese. I think it is good that this interview is taped many years after the making of the film. He seems to have had time to think about the reasons to why he did Taxi Driver and why it was a success.

Producing Taxi Driver: 7.5 out of 10: A good 10 minute look at how the Taxi Driver film was started. You hear mostly from producer Michael Phillips on what the movie meant to him. We are told that the movie was very controversial but sadly do not hear of much detail to why. We also see why some of the filmmakers were attracted to the film. There is a nice little look at the new generation of filmmakers that were coming up from the 1960’s and 70’s.

God’s Lonely Man: 9.5 out of 10: This is a great 25 minute documentary on the origins of the Taxi Driver film. We go into the life of the screenwriter Paul Schrader and see how the film was created from his own personal experiences. He talks about the foundations of the main character Travis why he was appealing to him. Paul gives us a lot of insight to what the philosophy is behind the screenplay. He talks in detail about what he thinks the job of a screenwriter is and what it is not. This documentary is a must for anyone studying screenwriting. The documentary helps us understand Taxi Driver in a much deeper way.

Influence and Appreciation: Martin Scorsese Tribute: 8 out of 10: This is a great 18 minute documentary on Martin Scorsese. It talks a little about how he got associated with Taxi Driver. They talk about him as being a student of film who always had a independence and exhilarating energy for filmmaking. We hear a lot about the kind of influence Martin was on the rest of the Taxi Driver crew. It is a documentary about why Martin is such a good director, only concentrating on the making of Taxi Driver and before. I wish they used the Taxi Driver as an example more often. I wish they went into more specific examples of how Martin’s shooting was revolutionary for his time. All in all a very good documentary. It was very well told and I liked hearing about the revolution in the 70’s for Hollywood filmmaking.

Taxi Driver Stories: 7 out of 10: A interesting look at a few New York taxi drivers. They talk about what taxi driving is all about for them. We hear how the business has changed from the 70’s to the present times. They explain what drew them to the job and some of them explain why they chose to leave the profession. It is a 20 minute documentary on some unique peoples lives as taxi drivers. Does not really have anything to do with the making of the actual film Taxi Driver.

Making Taxi Driver: 8 out of 10: This is a well made 1 hour and 10 minute documentary on all the stages of making Taxi Driver. All the way through the documentary we hear about the philosophy behind the film and how it resonated with the cast and crew. Many people talk about their role in the film and specifically how Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro pushed the film to be the classic it is today. Jodie Foster has some good things to say about her role as a 12 year old prostitute. She talks about what both Martin and Robert did to take her acting to a whole new level. Paul brings us a lot of insight into the meaning behind the movie. I would have liked to hear from Martin a little bit more. They never really get into much detail about the conflict that came with the film. I did enjoy hearing about Robert De Niro’s contribution to the film and what his attitude was as an actor back then. A good all a round look at the film making process.

Travis: New York: 5 out of 10: This was a okay look at New York in the 1970’s and how it has changed to present times. The documentary was very short however and not nearly enough of an explanation was given on how Now York has changed. We are told by some high up officials that the City has changed from back then to now. But, we don’t hear how it has changed or much of why. We are told that the City is Rich, but never are given a explanation. We also are not told why New York City is the place of opportunity, even though there are some interviews who say it is.

Story-Boards by Martin Scorsese: 8.5 out of 10: This is a fantastic 4 minute explanation by Martin about the beauty of storyboards. I really enjoyed it and think he explains well the general benefit of self made storyboards. We are given good explanation to how the storyboards help both him and his cinematographer understand how to go about shooting the film.

Commentary: By Professor Robert Kolker: 8.5 out of 10: Professor Kolker seems to have done his research on Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver in this commentary. He makes us understand to a much higher degree why Taxi Driver is considered by many to be a great piece of Cinema. He goes into detail on how Martin uses the camera to push the story and it’s meaning forward. He talks about Travis and explains his view on many of his scenes for us. Sometimes it feels like he is trying to put meaning into things that never had any. But, for the most part we dissect the Taxi Driver movie and see a lot of the fine details that make the film great.

Commentary: By Screenwriter Paul Schrader: 7.5 out of 10: I have some mixed feelings about this commentary. First off, Paul does a good job giving us his unique and valuable perspective on the film. He mostly sticks to his thoughts on the script. One of the frustrating things was the long gaps without him saying a word. It really felt like he was only talking half the time or less. There were several scenes I very badly wanted him to talk about that he just skipped over. He does a good job when he does talk. Paul is very honest. He tells us what he thinks a screenwriters job is and what he thinks is not a screenwriters job. He has experience with both directing and writing, so his comments on what the directors job is and what the screenwriters job is, are very valuable. Overall I did get some valuable information from him, but wish he talked and discussed much more then he did.

From these extra features I think we get a very good view on the making and importance of the Taxi Driver. We hear a fair amount from all the major people who took part in the making of Taxi Driver. For me it was a great introduction to Martin Scorsese. I was able to see some of his passion for film. I was also able to see what got him started in the film business and how his philosophy started to change the rest of Hollywood. Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro were also interesting people to look into. Paul Schrader’s screenplay really was something else. This is just as much Paul’s movie as anyone else’s. I respected the trust that Paul seemed to have with Martin, it is a good look at how a screenwriter and director should work together. These extra features explain very well the reasons to why Taxi Driver is considered one of the greatest films ever made. It also inspires the independent artist to make his own film, no matter how gutsy the story is.

Michael Arndt on Creative Screenwriting Podcast!!!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 13, 2010

I love listening to the many of the interviews on the Creative Screenwriting Podcast. They give you a lot of great tips on how to go about writing a screenplay and just some good insight on film making in general. I really think you should check out THIS podcast of Michael Arndt speaking about his past Toy Story 3 experience. He seems like a very passionate artist who is devoted to creating great stories. The personal story Michael shares on this podcast episode about how he went about becoming a screenwriter is very insightful. Some of his advice I feel is priceless and it is great to see how he learned through out the story making process for Toy Story 3.  I think he has some good things to say about the Pixar studio. It is encouraging to see at least one person in the film industry who thinks there is a studio out there that is driven by the director’s vision. Enjoy the link!

UPDATE: At the moment it seems that the podcast has been taken off line. I will keep the link up just in case it comes back on line some time. Sorry for the inconvenience.