Monday, August 11, 2008

Garage Films

A couple of weeks ago I went to a screening of my friend's new movie... and left early. The film wasn’t very good... but it was a finished film, and I think his 6th feature.

Hollywood is filled with dreamers and schemers. At one point in time this blog was going to be called “I Know All The Losers In Hollywood” - but that danged SNAKES IN A PLANE movie changed everything. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the losers from the winners. I met this guy in a non-Starbucks coffee shop, and one day he just decided to make movies. He came to LA to be a musician and played in a couple of garage bands, when that didn’t work out he tried to be an actor, and when that didn’t work out he decided to make movies... starring himself, playing music. This guy is a character... and his story is amusing and maybe inspiring.

He wrote a script - that was autobiographical and wasn’t very good. Because he loved MAGNOLIA and had no idea how to end an autobiographical script since he is still alive, he ended the script with an unexplained rain... of cakes! The script also featured the lead character furiously masturbating in a coffee shop bathroom. I never used the bathroom in that coffee shop where I met him again. So, he has no money... but he goes to a church function and explains that he’s trying to raise money to make a Christian themed film... and finds investors! He rounds up enough money to buy a prosumer grade camera, some lights, and a laptop and editing program... plus enough to pay for meals and video tape and expendables. He rounds up actor friends and friends with some crew experience and makes his little film. No budget. A shopping mall escalator gets some new signage and becomes LAX - just watch out for security guards! He steals locations - shooting with no permit at landmarks with lookouts posted to watch for police. And he sings and stars and it ends with unseen people on ladders dumping cakes on him - symbolic of something. The film is nonsense... but finished. He’s at the gym one day and sees a TV news guy, tells him about his movie... and they decide to do a story about him.

After he’s on TV, everyone in town wants to see his movie, and he sends out screeners. But his film is, well, weird, and nobody wants it. But he manages to find an investor to put up the couple thousand he needs to make the next film. Oh, and he actually gets a once famous actress to work for free (it will be her first time in a film in 2 decades). This film is slightly less strange, but still not in any genre and not mainstream at all. Despite the has-been star, no one wants to see this one. But, as with all of his films, he finds a theater that will donate some weeknight to him and he shows the film to cast, crew, friends, and anyone on his MySpace friends list. Just show up and see the movie, then have some wine and cheese afterwards.

He makes his movies for a couple of grand, none of them get any sort of distribution... but he doesn’t seem to care. He makes his movies just to make his movies. That’s the fun part for him. He has a day job to pay the rent, and making little movies and showing them to friends in some donated theater is his hobby.

Here's the problem with the new movie - it takes place at a workplace over a single day. But there is no spark (no inciting incident - in screenwriter talk) - so it's just a typical day at work. Nothing different happens. That means that all of the drama has to be artificially induced. So one character gets a phone call from their doctor that they have cancer. Another character decides - for no reason - to attempt suicide. There's a big chunk of exposition about their life outside the workplace falling apart. One character may have AIDS... they get a phone call, too. There are a bunch of dramatic elements that come from *outside* the office and *outside* the story. They just come from nowhere to create a scene. And, though things like this *do* happen in real life, on the screen it seems completely forced. You can see the writer-director off camera forcing the drama. None of it is connected to anything in the workplace. Just an out of the blue phone call that creates a false dramatic event. The film was contrived and fake.

Here's the irony - I'm sure my friend thought it was more realistic because there was no big inciting incident. That it was more natural and less contrived... but it seemed 100 times more forced than DIE HARD. Because in DIE HARD, once the terrorist take over the Christmas party, everybody does exactly what a real person would do - even the terrorists. They react naturally.

Now, that doesn't mean the workplace drama would have been better with terrorists, but he needed *some event* that made this day *different* than any other day. Look at GLEN GARY GLEN ROSS - this is the last day of the sales contest - someone will win and someone will be fired. That changes a normal day of selling into *the* day of selling - you can lose your job if you fail. So everyone is hustling on *this day* and maybe backstabbing their fellow employees and maybe having a melt down when things go wrong. Okay, now that we are in this pressure cooker situation at the workplace, the differences between characters can easily explode into drama without any outside phone calls. That's not the end of the world - but it is the end of a career for somebody. There are stakes. There is a deadline.

My friend's film would have been a million times better if the story had begun with them getting a new boss. Now you have people kissing up in all kinds of ways, people dealing with new authority, etc. No phone calls required - the drama would come from that spark - that change - that thing that alters the status quo. But you *must* have something that alters the regular world and creates a dramatic situation... or else you end up grafting on drama from the outside. Sometimes what is real seems fake and what is created by the screenwriter to kick off the story makes it all seem more real, more natural, less forced.

After an hour of phone calls creating artificial crisis, I snuck out of the theater. Some other people had snuck out before me, but I was going to try to stick it out. Couldn’t. I’m sure that others left after me (actually, three other people left at the same time I did).
Now, I would tell my friend how to improve his movie - but he wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t care. He makes his little movies that way he wants. For him making the movie is all that matters. He doesn’t care if they never end up on a Blockbuster shelf and probably doesn’t care that some of his MySpace friends didn’t stay until the end.

*I* look at his films from *my* perspective and think that with a little change here and there - no terrorists or explosions, just a new boss as an inciting incident so that the film seems less contrived - he might make it into a festival or two and maybe get picked up by some art house oriented DVD label. Maybe not - but it’s worth a try. I think he and his unpaid cast and crew do a lot of work, and it would be cool if the films found a larger audience than the people who showed up at the screening in North Hollywood. But that’s from my perspective. From his perspective, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do.

But here’s the lesson I came away with when I snuck out of that theater after an hour of plot altering phone calls - he’s made 6 films for pocket change. He just does it. If *I* decided to just do it and make a movie for pocket change - with a better script - *I* could be the one with my little film in festivals and maybe on the shelf at Blockbuster. Hey, maybe you can, too! And if nobody wants my little film? Maybe I can talk some theater into donating a weeknight and post a bulletin on MySpace....

- Bill

6 comments:

Morgan McKinnon said...

Are you saying that phone calls are ear sores?

I have a phone call that lasts for less than half a page...gives us info about every single character in the script...except a few.

This phone call, for the most part, sets up the story.

THELMA & LOUISE talked on the phone...

Are you saying that you have a problem with the phone?

Ryan said...

The problem isn't the phone per se. It's how it is used. (The key to film noir is to have people wearing hats.)

I haven't heard it called "garage film-making" before, but it's a good analogy. Garages are for bands, and movies are made in the backyard, but it is a similar attitude.

Jason Arnopp said...

Great post, sir.

Perhaps the inciting incident, in a remake of your friend's office movie, could be a big delivery of cakes. Through the ceiling. He might be game for that?

studioetc said...

I think this guy is OK. I am working on a feature film (fully funded) with a even worst story than what you just told (I kinda like the raining cake idea though :) ) anyway, there are plenty of people out there saying "they have a vision" ...
Then again at the end of the day, idea is only a multiplier. Execution is the money.

Brett said...

WHAT IF... (and bear with me) this guy's secret to what siccess he can claim is that his LACK of an objective internal critic frees him to maintain creative momentum when one of the Smart People (you and me, of course, and a select non-majority number of our friends) would instead pull over and re-tool.

I'm just not convinced that it's so simple as "Just Do It." yeah, Just Doing It would likely yield a movie, but I'm not sure that ANY movie always beats NO movie.

It strikes me that the moment you finish one project, you have now given specificity to your talent and abilities where, in that wonderful pre-action vacuum -- where all things are possible and capital-P Potential remans infinite and shiny -- the fact that nobody can for certain dismiss you as a hack or putz is actually one of the few strengths you can claim.

"I might be a genius -- nobody really knows for sure!"

Once you make a craptacular movie (which perhaps ends in a hail of cakes...) that claim is both harder to make and to support.

So I ain't makin no movie til I figure out how to make one that very much does not suck monkey balls.

But "A HAIL OF CAKES" might works for the movie's title.
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B

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