Charlie Kaufman is sad

Poor Charlie Kaufman. I’m feeling absolutely everything in his recent interview for IndieWIRE. It’s called Charlie Kaufman Reflects On His Career: ‘I Feel Like I F*cking Blew It.’ and with a title like that, I expect you’ll feel compelled to click too. For those of you who don’t, here’s a summary of his bummery:

In 2008, coming off the success of three brilliantly original films for which he wrote the screenplays, Kaufman took on the role of director for SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. And the film lost money. His second and latest film, ANOMALISA, has done just about as well – that is to say, not well at all.

In the interview, rather than trying to put a happy face on things, he explicitly airs his anxieties. Which, it seems to me, is a perfectly Charlie Kaufman thing to do. It also seems to me Kaufman mistook his hot streak for his new normal. No disparagement is intended: that’s one of those things that can only be evident in retrospect.



But it’s also not hard to diagnose his doldrums: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND each had measured amounts of melancholy, always tempered with sweetness and delight. The two films he’s since directed have retained all the inventiveness of his past work, but minus most of the fun. ANOMALISA is pretty bleak, and SYNECDOCHE is downright morbid. And that’s coming from someone who liked it.

So maybe he needs a creative course correction. Or just some fresh air and exercise, and a movie title you can pronounce. I find it hard to believe his career is over. There are natural cycles: you’re hot; you’re not. Better to have been hot, with the chance of heating up again, right? Me, I’ve been aspiring to be Charlie Kaufman (or at least someone in his general vicinity) much of my adult life.

So I sympathize with the creative angst, but then again… count yer blessings, Chuck. And that journalist interviewing you is right: all you need is one success and your doldrums will be over.

That goes for you and me both.


That time Supergirl made me cry


Melissa Benoist as Supergirl

Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.

The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.

The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.

The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.

We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)

Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.

“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).

SyFy's The Expanse

SyFy’s The Expanse (Photo by: Jason Bell/Syfy)

The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)

The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.

But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.

Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?

There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.

There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.

Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?

Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.

The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.

*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.

Three tips for short film-makers

A bunch of lanyards from film festivals

I’ve been to a few festivals in my day, and have been rejected from even more. So listen up, son.

Oh crap, I wrote a listicle. Recently a university film student wrote to me with some questions about my short film New. One of his questions was “what three tips can you give to a filmmaker entering a short film in festivals?” This is what I told him.

1) Have you made your film yet? If not, I’d say, make sure the script is as great as you can make it before you do anything else. If writing isn’t your forté, find some help. Once you have a script, get opinions from people you trust. Listen to them. Get some decent actors and do a table read. Listen to them.

2) Keep it under 10 minutes. The longer a short film is, the harder it is for programmers to fit it into their schedules. Once you pass 10 minutes TRT, you’d better have a fucking awesome film if you want to see it screen at a festival. “Gosh we all really love it, we just wish it were a little shorter” is not the call you want to get from the programmers at Sundance. Trust me. (The film in question was my short La vie d’un chien. 13 minutes.)

3) And if the film is done: do your research about festivals. It costs money to enter them, and there are LOTS of festivals. You could spend a fortune and have little to show for it. Find festivals that show the kind of film you have. Beyond that, I always ask myself: is this a prestigious festival to play at? …and if not, is it in a city I can drive to and get home from in one day? …and if not, is it in a city I’d like to visit?

Love letter

Consumption: 2015

Comparing 2015 to last year’s list only makes me appreciate the films of 2014 more. Following a year that brought us UNDER THE SKIN, HER and BOYHOOD, this new batch looks pretty weak. Even worse when you consider that the best film I saw on the big screen last year was Bennett Miller’s tremendous FOXCATCHER, and that was a late 2014 release. That said, I did enjoy most of these titles quite a lot. 2015 from my perspective was a year with a lots of very good movies, lacking in any great ones. Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.

Into The Woods
Foxcatcher (Wow.)
It Follows
While We’re Young
Burnt In Memory
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
Jurassic World
Inside Out
Pather Panchali
The Martian
I Want To Be A King
Bridge Of Spies
The Good Dinosaur
The Heart Of A Dog
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ender’s Game
The Lego Movie
Grey Gardens (1975)
Frances Ha
Another Earth
Je, Tu, Il, El
Two Days, One Night
Defending Your Life
American Ultra

Orphan Black (Tatiana finally got her Emmy nom. Yay! Didn’t win, though. Boo.)
Cougar Town
Modern Family
New Girl
Married (RIP)
Mr. Robot
Jessica Jones
The Expanse

World War Z
Quantum Deadline

Our view stats on Vimeo during our busiest week to-date

Thousands of eyes on us

Our sci-fi short film NEW debuted online November 2, and the response has been very gratifying indeed. As I write this post, we’re coming up on our 15,000th view. For a three-day period in early November, we were clocking around 3000 views per day! Those might not be spectacular numbers for, say, a 30-second kitten video, but for a quiet, 17-minute drama it’s pretty damn great. Even better: the smart comments the film has received. More about that in a moment.

Vidsee postThe film has been featured at sites like Film Shortage and Alltop. And I particularly enjoyed the generous selection of screen caps and long, English-as-a-second-language plot summary over at Singaporean short film site VidSee. Fun… but don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet!

Last week, I did an interview for a TV station in Switzerland called BeCurious TV – they’ll be airing that interview soon, along with NEW and two of my other shorts.

Best of all, we’ve been covered at, the go-to site for all things science fiction. I’ve been trying to get them to write about NEW for over two years! They were my white whale. Back when we were crowdfunding the budget, I sent the editors emails brimming over with all the charm I could muster, detailing the sci-fi epic being cooked up in their very own backyard (the site is based in San Francisco). All to no response… until now. Fair enough. I imagine they wanted to have a finished film to show people before writing about us.

But write abOur review at io9out us they did, last month, with a nice review that declared NEW “pretty heartbreaking.” When their story was published, it shot our view count through the roof for a couple of days. A month later it’s still a major driver of traffic to the film. Thank you, io9.

Click the image to read the review, and then take the time to savor the hardcore sci-fi discussions happening in the comments. You can see the viewers digging in, debating story points and extrapolating on the future glimpsed in NEW. No one is discussing whether the film is any good or not – that bar has been met for them. Following what was a just-okay festival run, it’s immensely satisfying for me to see NEW really finding its audience like this.

Answering Joel’s Questions

A thrilling moment of discovery from "Zip and The Metel (sic) Box."

A thrilling moment of discovery from “Zip and The Metel (sic) Box.”

Subject: Hi, I’m a film maker and it would be great if I could interview you for my course?

Message Body:
Hi, I’m an aspiring film maker doing a course in Exeter college in England and I am making a short movie, for the course and we had to pick someone to research and I picked you because you make movies in the same style that I want to and it would be great if I could ask you a couple of questions?

guess that’s it? anyway, thanks for the help?

. . .

Hi Joel,

I’m very pleased my film inspired you to write to me.

1: What inspired you to make movies?
I’ve always had a vivid imagination and was drawing out adventure stories (with flying robots) pretty much as soon as I could hold a crayon. I made my first film in grade school for an extra-credit project. The teacher & class reacted so positively I was pretty much hooked. Also, it turned out film-making was a way to be the center of attention while simultaneously hiding in the back of a dark room, so it suited my personality to a tee.

2: Why do you make your style of film?
I’ve never been asked that question. “I gotta be me,” I suppose. Style or aesthetic, to me, comes out of what seems the right thing to do to execute the scene or idea I’m working with. It’s my personal solution & choices as to what stories to tell, and how to tell them. That equals my style, right? Then there’s the questions of influences. As I mentioned, I’m a visual artist first – I work as graphic designer and illustrator, too – and everything I see is an influence. Films of course, and TV, but also illustration and fine art, literature… everything, really. Life. It’s a lot of work making a film. My last one took me two years. So I have to love the idea – a lot – to commit to making it. It has to have a strong underlying idea, a good script, and also has to excite me on a visual level – it has to play like a film in my mind, so vividly that it demands to be made.

3: Do you have a mentor that got you into film?
No, though at times I’ve wished I had a mentor, for artistic and career reasons. But I just got a camera and started doing it. That’s the best way to learn.

Good luck with your film,


PS: offering one piece of writing advice for you, Joel, unsolicited: it’s OK to use question marks at the end of actual questions. For statements, regular old periods are a great choice as well.😉