Category: screenwriting

Time is an inky circle

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This post contains spoilers for ARRIVAL.

ARRIVAL is one of those rare birds, a sci-fi movie for grownups. It’s aesthetically and conceptually elegant and at the same time very moving, and if you haven’t already, you should see it before you learn too much. Not that there is a huge and sudden reveal: there is no SIXTH SENSE moment. At least, there wasn’t for me: it was more a gradual, growing awareness of the story’s main premise and all its implications.

The protagonist of ARRIVAL is linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited to communicate with alien visitors who have appeared in our skies. As the story begins, language is seen by all the characters in the film as a means to an end. Slowly and simultaneously, you and the characters on screen come to realize language itself the point.

Central to the film is the notion that language shapes perception. As Louise learns to parse the aliens’ looping pictographs she also acquires their ability to perceive time in a non-linear way. Exploring this concept, ARRIVAL does that amazing thing science fiction can sometimes do: it re-situates you, offering a unique vantage point from which to consider the conscribed parameters of your human experience. After seeing it, your own inability to perceive events before they happen may feel to you a sorry limitation, like a kind of blindness.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer employs non-linear story structure to represent Louise’s expanding perception. As directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a fairly daring tactic that tosses the audience without warning or cues into key scenes in Louise’s future. A sequence in which Louise and a high-ranking Chinese general collaborate to avert global catastrophe is breathtaking, cross-cutting between Louise’s present and future while defying notions of cause and effect.

But the film is not just a think piece: in ARRIVAL, the intellectual and the emotional are unified, inseparable. For Louise’s newly expanded perceptions also allow her to foresee a great personal tragedy. Ultimately she embraces the choices that will lead to that tragedy, fully aware of the terrible cost. I found myself turning her decision over and over in my mind for days afterward. That says everything about the strength of the film.


I’m John Harden. I also write and direct. I’m on Twitter as @giantspecks, sometimes Yelling About Movies with my friends. Come say hi. Or yell back! #YabtM

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.

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ANOMALISA

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

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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?

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,

John

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. 😉

Six tweets about HER, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Singularity

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's HER

Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johanssen in Spike Jonze’s HER

A little spoiler-y, I suppose, especially toward the end. You’ve been warned.

As usual Jonze gets details just right. I ❤ Theo’s safety pin. A lesser mind would have given him a taller phone or shallower shirt pocket

I’m taken with how Jonze forgoes cynicism/anger. Theo’s job: ghost-writing personal letters. A chance to bludgeon us with satire…

…but Theo’s great at his job. His letters are poetic, heartfelt; we can’t feel superior. Emotions are real & valid regardless of origin?

Last time 2 AIs talked in a movie it was COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Here, we get Samantha chatting to an Alan Watts simulacrum. (Swoon.)

I did wonder if Theodore returned to the mall to ask for a refund on OS1. Think I would, if my Mac told me it needed to see other people.

HER is a gentle, sweet love story that takes on big scifi ideas with ease and grace. I admire many films; this is one I wish I’d made.

Resolutions

A high point: Austin Film Fest, 2010. Me and my writing partner Skot Christopherson and our spouses, after winning best sci-fi screenplay. For balance, this article should also feature a photo of me moping around the house wondering what I'm doing with my life. For some reason no such photo documentation exists.

A high point: Austin Film Fest, 2010. Me and my writing partner Skot Christopherson and our spouses, after winning best sci-fi screenplay. For balance, this article should also feature a picture of me moping around the house wondering what I’m doing with my life. Fortunately, no such photo documentation exists.

…resolutions? What the hell do I know about resolutions? When I look at my life, it’s totally un-resolved. It’s been that way since at least 1991, when POV bought my short film and gave me the notion that maybe, just maybe, I knew what I was doing with this filmmaking thing. Since then, I’ve only gotten better: at writing, at directing, hell – at thinking and working – and yet, after all the films and scripts and accolades and awards junking up my bookshelf I have yet to break through and actually get someone to to sign on. To stick their neck out. To look at the work and say, “Yes, John, we see what you see. We support it. We want it to grow. Here’s a chance. Here’s your shot.”

There have been close shaves. At the Austin Film Festival, after winning top prize for a screenplay I co-wrote, I was sure we’d met the producer who was going to Change Everything. So sure, in fact, that my writing partner and I did a free rewrite for the guy. I know, I know… and I even knew then: never, ever do that. But this was different. We had a deal. We’d shaken hands, we’d had drinks together. We were working together! We bashed out our rewrite in 3 weeks and called the producer and what do you know, we couldn’t even get him on the phone. The alcohol buzz and the Austin magic dust had both worn off. He was back in L.A., and the force field was back up. He never even looked at our rewrite.

But, no matter. I just keep plugging away. Occasionally I say “I don’t need anyone’s permission to make films,” or something brave like that. And to some extent, that’s true. I keep making my own way, far from everything, with no mentorship and no process and no guidance except for my own sense of how things should be, which, in my defense, is so very very strong it’s been enough in many cases to carry me from concept all the way through execution, and resulted in a good film. When I toured the festival circuit with The Life of a Dog I was mobbed after screenings by people waving twenty-dollar bills, looking to buy DVDs. Vindication is sweet. It’s not the reason for doing things, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy it.

Clearly as much as I love creating things, my identity as a creator of things is for me fraught and fettered by all kinds of emotional crap. I know my condition is far from unique among creative people – in fact, it’s probably the norm. There is some comfort in this. (Actually there’s a shit-ton of comfort in it.) Nevertheless, I am often beset by anxiety. Sometimes I get tired, or depressed, or angry.

There’s no cure. This kind of life is a chronic condition. As miserable as it sometimes makes me, I can’t imagine stopping. So, since it is the season for it, let’s tally up some accomplishments and lay some plans for the future. Therefore:

Things I’m proud of for 2013:

My first foray into crowdfunding was an unqualified success. I put up a promo video explaining what I wanted to do, and people believed.* We raised over $22,000 to make my short film, NEW. Fully $5000 of it came as a matching fund, which we were singled out to receive by Rose Kuo, who was at the time Executive Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Making the film. Given the length and complexity of the script and the money and time available, NEW the short film was ambitious. What’s on the screen isn’t at every moment a perfect distillation of what I wanted it to be, but it’s pretty damned close. I learned a lot.

Directing my first-ever sex scene. Hey, not only can I watch that scene without cringing, I actually like it. Cherry popped!

Working with the best actors I’d ever worked with. And my lead actor telling me I was the best director he’d ever worked with. People on my crew telling me NEW was the best film they’d ever worked on. And, the grip who got choked up watching us shoot the big scene, when he realized the subtext of a character’s line.

My wishes and goals for 2014:

Finish NEW the short film.

Finish NEW the feature screenplay. Concurrently, so when the film is out there being seen, I’m ready with a polished script in my hand.

Find help. Making NEW the short film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In this production, we found the edge of impossible and skated on it. I lost 10 pounds during a six-day shoot. (There’s got to be a better way to lose weight.) I simply could not make a feature film using the same methods. So, once the screenplay is done, a concerted effort must follow to get it out there and connect with people who can help me get it made. Granted, I’m much happier hunkered down alone with my crayons than bragging about myself to strangers, but selling yourself is part of the job, too.

Make more films. More little ones, rather than fewer big ones. I am not prolific. I expend huge amounts of time and energy on ambitious projects. My latest short film was written in the summer of 2012. 18 months later, I’m in post, and will be, into early next year. And so: make more films. Hell, don’t even call them “films” if that’s too much pressure. Grab a camera. Shoot some video. Have fun. Remember fun?

Remember fun. Remember to have some.

Read more. Books and screenplays, that is. Fewer emails, Tweets and Facebook posts.

See more films. Old ones, and new ones too.

Go to bed. Turn off the internet, and go to bed. And since you are now rested, it will be easier to get up earlier (leaving the email and the Twitter OFF), and to write for a least an hour every day before you go to work. (And when you get home at night, get some exercise, too, OK?)

Look outside myself. Finally, I resolve to think about myself less. Not in the sense of neglecting myself. In the sense of turning off the negativity when it starts. Dismissing myself from that activity. You are excused from introspection. Look around, instead, at things and people. Listen, too. But remember that words are not the be-all and end-all of filmmaking. Images are. Don’t disappear up your own inner monologue worrying about character arcs and turning points and backstory and dialogue. Talk is cheap, but a picture is worth a thousand words. So look at the world. Look at what people do. Look at art. Doodle. Daydream. (And if I remember to do this one, the “have fun” part will probably take care of itself).

Happy New Year.

* When I say “I” it’s not to imply that NEW was created single-handedly. My heart still brims with gratitude toward the people who helped me, but I’ve thanked them elsewhere, and profusely. This blog entry is all about me, so – back to me.