Monday, March 16, 2009

Bill's Little Movie Experiment (Part One)

A month ago after my post about the movie I’m making next year, there were a couple of comments about how it sounded like fun and they wished they could be in the Bay Area to help... and within a few days John August posted about his abandoned web series THE REMNANTS, including all kinds of great cost information. I began this blog entry, then something got in the way and I’m just now getting back to it.

If making a little movie really does sound like fun to you, why not consider making your own? I plan on giving you the play-by-play as we actually start making the film, but I’ve already started some of the planning, so why not include you in that? Like all plans, some of this may change - but if you have any interest in grabbing some people in your home town and making a film, this may help.

Probably the main reason for making this film is to hang out with old friends and try to recapture the fun of being stupid 20 year olds making short films that we used to show in my garage. Sure, this will be hard work, but it also has to be something fun, something we enjoy doing, or what’s the point? If this were all about making money, well - I think I’d be better off writing a spec script or going back to work forklift jousting. Any time you make a film, it’s a gamble. It may never make a cent. I don’t want anyone to max their credit cards then blame me when the film doesn’t sell.

This little film is also an experiment - actually a bunch of experiments, but four main ones. When I first began writing for Script Magazine, my column was all about writing for low budget and independent films. I also spent a year writing a column for the Independent Film Channel’s magazine on writing for budget, and I own reprint rights to all of those articles - almost enough for a book. Some of those articles get linked now an then on my website, others have been rewritten for a European Film magazine, and a couple are the basis for the Indie Screenwriting CD. But many are just sitting in the vault... I thought I’d rewrite them into a book on writing for a budget and making your own digital feature - there really isn’t a good book about Indie screenwriting out there. But I would be an idiot if I wrote a book about making your own digital feature and had never actually made one. So, aside from having fun with old friends, this movie is an experiment for my proposed book. As usual, I plan on making a bunch of mistakes then writing about them so that you don’t make the same ones. I have not made a film in ages, so I’m going to have to learn about everything from SAG contracts to distribution.

The four main experiments are:
1) Serial Format.
2) Alternate Directors
3) Web Distribution.
4) Making A Feature For Pocket Change.

So, let’s start by looking at the serial format.


Part of my grand scheme is to play around with “new media” which is the fancy word for the internet. We all know some 4 minute YouTube short of a guy throwing a Frisbee with his butt cheeks will race across the nation in a heartbeat. But a story? That’s proving to be difficult. There have been a few “web shows” that found an audience, but usually the web is great for some stand alone comedy piece or CHOCOLATE RAIN or something - things that are passed around, and then it’s over. Not something that is more like a TV show - you have to go back every week to watch a new episode. There *are* some webisodes that companions to popular TV shows, but that’s something different. So how do you get people to keep coming back for more every week?

I’ve been looking at old time movie serials as a model - and watched a bunch. Most of them sucked. If you are unfamiliar with old serials, there was a time in the 30s and 40s when a movie program consisted of an A feature, a B feature, a newsreel, a bunch of coming attractions, and the latest chapter of a serial. Serial chapters back then were about half an hour long - some went 45 minutes - and usually action based. Westerns, super heroes, thrillers, crime stories, war stories and just plain old action. Guys like John Wayne got their start in these things. In a way, they were like TV shows... except made for a nickle by some sub-B studio like Monogram and to make sure that the audience came back to see *their* serial (and not the other guy’s) there would be a *strong* cliffhanger at the end of each chapter.

Here is a link to a website with free downloads of some old serials (all of them fell out of copyright), and I suggest ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION as one that is watchable and fun. I have watched Rod LaRogue as THE SHADOW (one of my favorite pulp mags and old radio shows) and it kind of sucks. The John Wayne THREE MUSKETEERS somehow takes place in the French Foreign Legion, and is almost watchable. These things were aimed at kids, and if you can watch them using your 12 year old boy brain, they can be fun and entertaining... even though they are cheaply made and feature silly plots and usually awful acting.

Free Public Domain Movies. (Serial Page)

Movies like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK took inspiration from them, so I’m kind of looking at an idealized version of those serials - not as much what they are, as what they could be if done a lot better.

So here’s the plan:

Twelve 7 minute segments gives me a feature when I’m finished.

*Strong* cliffhangers at the end of each segment. My theory is that cliffhangers are the answer to the web thing... and even if I’m wrong, it’s going to make a danged exciting movie for the DVD release. What’s the downside?

I considered doing 5 minute segments for a while, and that’s still an okay idea. I just looked at scene lengths and thought 7 might be an easier number to hit every episode. Oh, and there’s a good chance it may time out differently after we actually make it.

The most difficult part of coming up with the script is that I need 11 strong cliffhangers. Oh, wait, some of you probably want to know what a cliffhanger is. In those old serials, each episode would end with a “cliffhanger” so that you would have to come back and watch the next episode. The name comes from the standard serail scene where the hero would get knocked off the edge of a cliff by the bad guy and grab hold of a rock or root and be hanging hundreds of feet over a canyon... losing his grip! End of episode, come back next week to see if he falls or finds some way to climb over the edge. Back wne I was a kid, the Adam West BATMAN show was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every Tuesday night episode would end with Batman and Robin being slowly lowered into a vat of boiling oil (or something) by the villain... no way to escape! But when you tuned in Thursday night, they would find some way to survive - usually a hidden Bat-device that King Tut’s goons missed when they searched them - and then we’d get the second half of the story. You had to tune in to find out how they escaped, and the kids on the playground always had their theories. Our theories were always more clever than the hidden Bat-device... which may be why I’m a writer now.

But if you look at RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, it has scene after scene where Indy gets into some situation where there is no way to escape... then he finds the way and gets out of there, until the next scene. In that opening scene, after stealing the idol, he jumps across that bottomless pit, doesn’t quite make it, and is actually hanging from the edge of a cliff... grabbing at that root, which pulls out of the ground! So that’s the way my story is going to work - each of those 7 minute segments ends with a situation where the hero is in big trouble with seemingly no way out... and you have to come back next week to see how the conflict is resolved. I’m looking at these 11 cliffhangers as *twists*, too - not just some predictable bad thing happening to the hero, buy a totally wild shocker that puts our hero in even more trouble! The stronger I can make the twist-cliffhanger, the better the chances of the online part of the experiment working.

And just because I’m using the serial thing for a thriller, doesn’t mean you can’t use the same method for a rom-com or a horror film or comedy or even a drama (but a straight drama is going to be a tough sell - not telling you not to make one, just warning you) - you can use the strong cliffhangers in any genre!

But, as I said, even if the online part of the experiment fails, it all comes out to feature length and with all of those twists and cliffhangers will be one danged exciting film.

I hope.

Part Two

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Concealing and Revealing information and HARRY POTTER.
Yesterday’s Dinner: I actually forgot to eat yesterday.
Bicycle: Took a bike ride to a far-off Starbucks yesterday, and did a short ride today with me legs screaming for a break.

Movies: WATCHMEN - Fans of the graphic novel will begin tracking me through the city, carrying “The End Is Nigh” signs, and waiting for their chance to brutally kill me after reading this review...

A week ago Sunday I saw WATCHMEN with a group of friends on a massive IMAX screen at the Universal City Cinemas with Night Owl’s hovercraft parked out front. It was amusing to look into the turbines and see painted flames. One of the great things about seeing a movie in Los Angeles is that you may get to see the Batmobile “tumbler” parked in the lobby, or maybe the models of the Enterprise used in the new STAR TREK movie (now at the Arclight Hollywood) or the costumes or props from some movie (costumes from WATCHMEN on the opposite side of the Arclight lobby).

Due to either good luck or bad luck, by the time I realized I was probably the first one there and that they were letting people into the cinema and that maybe I should grab seats for everyone, the only available seats for a group our size was in row, I think, five - right up close to the screen. The IMAX screen. Now, I usually sit in Row 6, so this wasn’t that big of a deal for me - and nobody else in the group complained and a couple thought it was cool to sit right up there close to the screen. Had we known we’d have a giant swinging blue penis flying at us through half of the film, it may not have been so cool... But more about the Smurf porn later.

I have never read the comic book, nor the graphic novel they compiled it into - I didn’t really know anything about WATCHMEN until Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Even then, I only knew it as an anomaly - a comic book better than most of my favorite books (which did not make the list)? I didn’t know who any of the characters were or what the story was. I didn’t know one of the superheroes didn’t believe in pants, and let his junk swing in the wind. The trailers made it look interesting, but gave me not a single clue as to what the *story* might be - I hate trailers like that. I also hate trailers that give away the whole danged film, like the one for LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. I like trailers that are just right - they give you the lead character and what the big conflict is going to be, then let you worry about the whole thing until you see the movie. In fact, the reason why you see the movie is because you are worried for the lead character and want to make sure they solve that big asteroid issue or come to the end of that page of numbers and realize that the last disaster is going to wipe out most of the world’s population... unless they can do something about it. But WATCHMEN’s trailer didn’t give me a clue as to the plot - someone was killing superheroes - but was this just going to be Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS with dudes in capes? A superhero movie needs a super story! They didn’t even show the super villain in the trailer! One of the fun things about a superhero movie is that kid’s game - who would win a fight between Superman and Batman? Except it’s: Who would win a fight between Spider-Man and Doc Oc? And you imagine all of the fights and scenes that might happen, then go to see the movie to find out what *really* happens. But no super villain in the trailer...

So I had no idea what to expect.

The lights go down, the movie begins...

WATCHMEN starts out as one of the greatest movies ever made. The title sequence gives us the entire warped history of the crime fighters - how they began as The Minutemen and later evolved (or devolved) into The Watchmen... and what happens when those with great power shirk their responsibility... or maybe give their word to the wrong people. How absolute superpowers corrupt absolutely. The power of that opening title sequence overwhelmed me.

Then we come to the murder of The Comedian (in the trailer, not a spoiler) which kicks off the whole story - whatever that may be - and... it sucks. First, because I don’t know the rules of the story, I don’t know who the Comedian is or what his powers are or what his character is - except for the name. And, well, he’s not funny in this scene. I realize it’s a scene where he gets killed - but there are plenty of non-superhero movies with characters who are not named The Comedian who say really funny things in fight scenes, or even have really funny last words. Nothing funny here. And the guy who comes to kill him has some sort of super powers - he throws the Comedian across the room - seeming to aim at every glass topped coffee table in the apartment (and there are several). The Comedian does his own punching - and it’s stronger than a normal guy, stronger than Batman, but not as strong as Superman. I have no idea what this guy’s powers are... but the assassin is more powerful.

Now, the big problem with this action scene is that it is repetitious and boring and tells us nothing about the character(s). I just finished a two part article for Script Magazine called Anatomy Of An Action Scene that is all about how an action scene is a character scene and a story scene and needs an emotional component. This action scene had none of that... and was kind of boring. And went of *forever*. After running out of glass topped coffee tables, the bad guy throws the Comedian through the plate glass window of the apartment, and he falls all the way down to the street below. Splat. No shortage of blood.

And the fight scene is not just missing an emotional component, it is shot in the most boring possible way - no reversals, no suspense, no tension, all of it is just *blah*! And the rest of the movie is blah as well - Snyder and the writers seem to find the blandest way to give us information. Nothing is *revealed* - even the “big reveals” in the story are just dumped on us in the blandest way possible. Maybe this stuff worked on the pages of the graphic novel, but this method did not work on that big IMAX screen. The story, like the fight scenes, was told in the blandest way possible.

None of the other fight scenes in the film would have any character or story or emotional component with one exception - a *great* prison riot fight with Rorschach. That scene had everything except a story purpose - but was the highpoint of the film for me. In fact, Rorschach was the highpoint of the film for me, they should have just gotten rid of all of the other characters and subplots and crap and just made the film about him.

That was the big problem with the movie for me - it was a soap opera about super heroes. Too many lead characters, too many subplots, too many minor conflicts masquerading as major conflict. Rorschach investigating the Comedian’s murder is basically abandoned - shoved aside by all of these subplots - so we not only have nothing driving the story, we have all of these soap opera plots taking center stage when they should have just been jettisoned. They get in the way of the story. Back when I was taking Film Appreciation at Diablo Valley Community College (home of the sex-for-grades program) my friend Bruce Dowling did time lapse photography of a full week of a soap opera (I don’t remember which one) compressing 5 hours into 3 minutes of unexpected pregnancies and affairs and break ups and evil twins and all of the other crap in a soap... and it was funny as hell! Because all of these crazy, silly, melodramatic plots compressed into 3 minutes showed them for what they were - over the top junk. In WATCHMEN we have all of those soap plots - an unwanted pregnancy, a relationship on the rocks because he spends too much time at work, some evil twins, an affair with his best friend’s girl, a drunk old man remembering his glory days, the town slut, friends who never come over for a visit anymore, a guy with erectile dysfunction, an ex-fiancé who shows up slowly dying of cancer, a woman with a shameful secret affair... on and on into the Edge Of Night! For the first hour and a half this movie is a big silly soap opera - no plot driving it, just a bunch of little subplots.

Now, I suspect that on the comic book page all of this plays - but on the screen it’s all subplot, no main plot. In a *movie* the subplots need to be connected to the main plot.

And no main character. Again - in a comic book, you can do something interesting like have different characters as the lead in each issue. Give them all equal time and a couple of issues to call their own. That works in a novel, too. But on the big screen, it’s all one issue - and all one story - and needs one protagonist. One character that the audience will identify with for the next 2 hours (or, three in this case). If they would have stuck with Rorschach’s murder investigation and made all of these other characters suspects and witnesses (and cut out most of the scenes without Rorschach) it would have flowed better and been more interesting. Less soapy.

When we finally get back to Rorschach about an hour and a half into the film, the movie takes off again and keeps going strong until the end. Much of this is probably due to Jackie Earle Haley’s performance. Because BREAKING AWAY is one of my favorite movies, I’ve been a fan forever - and it’s great to see his come back continue. The thing about Rorschach is, when he’s behind the mask he has the most interesting dialogue in the film, but when they tear off his mask... the film gets great, because we can see layers of emotion on Haley’s face. Much of the dialogue in WATCHMEN is on the nose and stilted, but Rorschach gets the best lines... and the *best* line in the film.

One of the reasons why Rorschach is so good is that the other characters are kind of bland. Silk Spectre 2 gets all kinds of bad dialogue, and until she kicks some ass in the prison scene is basically just Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend with relationship issues. Night Owl 2 is a quiet nerd, not the most interesting character type. Dr. Manhattan and his swinging blue penis is calm and soft spoken and so far above everything that he’s boring... but that blue dick is distracting whenever it’s on the screen. You don’t want to look at it, but I swear Snyder keeps positioning the danged thing right in the center of the action. Ozymandias is super-benevolent, doing good things for everyone - which is kind of boring. He’s also so full of himself, he’s silly. And he has that awful wig - what’s up with that?

Because of the cancer subplot, I kept expecting Ozmandias to rip off the bad wig at some point in the story and have it be plot related... but it wasn’t part of the story, just bad make up. Plenty of that in the film - this film had the least convincing Richard Nixon ever - his make up was awful. Compare this to Frank Langella, who looks nothing like Nixon and didn’t wear much make up, but was completely convincing in FROST/NIXON. And it wasn’t just Nixon who had bad make up, Silk Spectre 1 (Carla Gugino, who I have a mad crush on) had old age make up that looks like it was applied with a trowel. On a movie of this size, a film that studios are suing each other over, you expect the make up to be *adequate*.

But once Rorschach is sprung from prison, the plot finally kicks in and we move toward the preposterous end. Hey, it’s a comic book, so preposterous ends are okay.

A big problem when we get back to Who Killed The Comedian? Is that there are no suspects at all. They didn’t make any of the other characters into suspects, there were no clues, there is no real investigation, there are no supervillains introduced who might have killed the Comedian as part of some fiendish plan... So when they expose the guy behind the murder, it’s kind of a “so what?” moment. And then we get the villain’s big speech explaining why he did it and what his plan is and...

One of the problems along the way to that end (and in the first hour and a half) is a whole lotta standing around talking - including a bunch of speechifying. A comic book is a *still frame* with speech balloons. A film is frames *moving* at 24fps where the story is told through the actions of the characters. Theses are almost polar opposites. Comic books work entirely differently than movies, which is why they must be *adapted* - changed - changed at he very core of the story, because these two mediums are completely different. When people think that comic books are a natural for movies, they are wrong - sure, both have visuals, but no two mediums could be further apart in how they tell the story. Even a novel has *movement* - but a comic book has characters stuck in a still frame. One of the reasons why I dislike V FOR VENDETTA (aside from the silly plot) is that it’s speech after speech after speech - with the characters just standing there. This is *not* a movie.

The big problem is one of adaptation. The reason why Dr. Manhattan’s big blue dick swings through the frame is because that’s what happened in the comic book - if they had made him wear underpants the fans would have screamed that the studio wasn’t being faithful to the source material. If they had streamlined the plot and gotten rid of all of the soap opera crap and made Rorschach the only lead, they wouldn’t be faithful to the source material. If they had made any changes that made it a *better film* the fans would scream that they weren’t being faithful to the source material. Hey - that thing we see in the cinema is not a graphic novel, it’s a *movie* and must work as a movie! If that means you have to change things to make it work as a movie, that’s what has to be done.

There are a finite number of WATCHMEN fans and a much much larger audience of regular film goers. You can’t make a movie for the graphic novel fans - they made the graphic novel for them - you have to make a film for the movie fans... and that’s where WATCHMEN falls short. On a message board I frequent, there is a die hard WATCHMEN fan who is arguing with anyone who doesn’t like the movie... and anyone who thinks they should have made changes to make it work better on screen. Problem is, you can’t make people like a movie more because it’s faithful to the source material. I didn’t pay $11.50 to watch a faithful recreation of a comic book - I paid for a movie. There is a similar issue with the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - hardcore fans were afraid they were going to tone down the violence to make it a mainstream movie... and they did. But the big difference between trying to please the fans on WATCHMEN and trying to please the fans on LAST HOUSE is that LAST HOUSE is a low budget horror movie that cost $15 million to make... and WATCHMEN cost more than TEN TIMES that! (Before adverts and lawsuits.) WATCHMEN needed to appeal to a mass audience at that budget, not just the fans. It needed to be a mainstream hit...

The movie I got saw okay, once it finally got started. But the real tragedy to me - there were some interesting ideas and possibilities in WATCHMEN that were never explored because it was faithful to the source. I wish it were possible to make a new movie that was less faithful to the source and more faithful ti the concepts behind the source. Superheroes struggling with their powers... worried that one of them might have gone over to the darkside - but which one? Maybe in 20 years they’d do one of those pointless remakes that uses the basic ideas from the source but is more concerned with making a great movie than pleasing the fans...

And maybe that version will make the Comedian funny, and have Rorschach’s mask serve some crime fighting purpose... and not just create flawed characters, but *show us* these characters ***struggling with their flaws***. Problem with a movie about the death of a complete asshole rapist assassin jerk is that I really don’t care who killed him... and that means I don’t care about the story.

- Bill


mrswing said...

I'm very interested to see how your serial experiment turns out.
The originals do tend to lose their luster once you hit your twenties... Especially the lame plotting and the cheats in resolving the cliffhangers are real turnoffs. (The Batman serials are both really, really bad as well)

And as for the superpowers of the Watchmen - they don't have any except for Blue Penis Guy.

ObiDonWan said...

I read the WATCHMEN graphic novel and the one for V for Vendetta (and saw the movie on that one) and agree with you 110%: Moore, the author of both, sucks supremely. I can't imagine why people like them. Good on ya, Bill, for calling a piece of crap what it is.

Luzid said...

Twisthangers, eh? Good call.

Anonymous said...

that was a briliant review of Watchmen. besides the 97 other things you do you should apply for LA Times movie critic heh... link this puppy off the Watchmen thread on DD

Leif Smart said...

I think your preconception that they are super heroes with super powers has colored your opinion of the movie. The only super powers are obviously Manhattan, and possibly Ozymandias, though his seemingly super powers are explained in the graphic novel. All the others are literally vigilantes, everyday people who happen to be good at beating people up, but who wear masks.

of course, many of your points still stand, but curious what you think of the movie without it being the superhero movie you were expecting.

wcmartell said...

No - BATMAN is a vigilante. Batman has no super powers, just equipment.

The Comedian in the opening fight scene has more than human strength - he is stronger than Batman in any of the films. That's shown in the movie.

And Silk Spectre 2 and Night Owl take on a bunch of dangerous convicts - not using surprise and equipment like Batman - they appear to be faster and stronger than the convicts. That's shown in the movie.

I only know what is in the movie.

- Bill

Leif Smart said...

Well, the fact that the movie gives that impression is another major flaw really.

The scene with night owl 2 talking to night owl 1 over drinks is probably suppose to establish that but its rather fleeting and easily missed. In that scene he explains how the masks started from just cops who were tired of masked criminals getting off due to not being identifiable.

Of course the bigger implausibility is Rorschach's mask, which isn't explained in the movie at all.

But try taking it on faith that there are no super powers, and that these are just vigilantes who are trying to take the law into their own hands, and does that change your opinion of the movie and its story much?

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