2017 Goal #1: Finish my feature screenplay spec BARTENDER OF THE YEAR and submit it to the Nicholl Fellowship in April.
Goal achieved? NO
Not only did I blow past the Nicholl Fellowship and every other contest deadline this past year, I am nicely on-track to miss a bunch of 2018 deadlines too. I’m currently 100+ pages into a terrible, no good, very bad first draft. Writers sometimes call the first draft the “vomit draft,” the goal being getting it done, not making it good. But rather than a full-throated purge, progress on BARTENDER OF THE YEAR has advanced in a series of minuscule puke-belches.
BARTENDER is a comedy-drama about a popular local mixologist who runs for office in his small town. It’s also my challenge to myself to write a movie outside my comfort zone: one with no science fiction elements or high-concept gimmicks to propel the story. And it’s propulsion, sure enough, that has been lacking. In my darkest moments of plotting this thing I’m convinced I know nothing about writing, human nature, normal human speech, or how the everyday affairs of human beings are conducted. I feel as if I’m bluffing my way through everything.
And then other days… it’s better. A lot better. Experience has taught me the only way out is through. Push, work, WRITE until the work becomes the thing that occupies your mind instead of the fear.
Goal #2: Search for material
Goal achieved? YES
Itching to get a project into prep, this year I decided to put on my producer hat and start looking for screenplays. I didn’t find anything I wanted to option, but I made the effort and read a pile of scripts. (I’m still itchy. If you’re interested in sending me something, please read this to learn more.)
Goal #3: AFX training
Goal achieved? NO
This year I bought myself a nifty (and pricey) new MacBook with the intention of updating my knowledge of Adobe After Effects. The ability to create pro-level motion graphics and visual effects “in-house” would hugely expand the range of projects I can execute DIY-style. And, it’s never a bad thing to have more marketable skills. But I had an ambitious list of goals for 2017 and something had to give, so this one resides on the back-burner. I needed a new computer anyway, honey. Really.
Goal #4. Take a beginning improv class
Goal achieved? YES
Every Monday for 10 weeks this past year I stood up with a group of strangers, playing silly improv games with them and making up scenes on the spot. I said and did the first stupid-ass thing that came into my mind. Something different, to maybe blow some cobwebs out of the brain. Not as embarrassing as anticipated. Signing up for the intermediate class in January.
Goal #5. Other writing
Goal achieved? YES
OK, admittedly “other writing” is a pretty nebulous goal, so it’s easy to call this one a win. I did work on things besides BARTENDER OF THE YEAR in 2017… and even finished some of them. For instance, an 8-page short called FROG, which I’m pretty happy with. It’s a two-hander about a disabled intern who befriends the super-intelligent frog she meets one night in a university computer lab. It was written expressly for the Jameson First Shot contest and if it had won, the script would have been produced with actor Dominic West providing the voice of the frog. Alas, that didn’t happen, but FROG did quarter-final in the ScreenCraft Short Screenplay contest in September.
One of the best writing experiences I had this past year happened at the day job, imagine that: Armstrong Creates, the agency I’ve worked at for mumble-mumble years now. I’m a generalist there, which means I might be retouching photos one day and cooking up an ad campaign the next. When a client (a manufacturer of corks for the wine industry) decided they wanted a concepts for a promotional video, I whipped up a script for a comedy sketch that takes place entirely inside a wine bottle. The wine and the cork are personified (think the Fruit of the Loom guys), best buddies who’ve grown very close over the years as the wine ages. They even sing a duet together. Like so many concepts, this pitch never made it out of the conference room. Too bad: I think it would have turned out well. Would have been an absolute blast to shoot, too. Given that, what exactly made this a good writing experience? Well, I got paid, for one thing. But more to the point: starting from zero I cranked out a completed script – one I was really happy with – in the matter of a couple of hours. It was exhilarating, and a welcome reminder that I don’t really need inspiration. I just need a deadline. So sure, my concept got rejected, but I went home happy that day. And the experience helped me shake off the torpor I’d been fighting much of the year.
Back at home and re-energized, I finally wrote up a first draft of ANAESTHESIA, another short film idea that I’d been kicking around for too many years. I’m also compiling notes for a new feature script, the one I’ll write once BARTENDER is in the bag. I don’t know the title yet. But it’s a sci-fi comedy about an alien invasion. Yeah, back to the comfort zone. I gotta be me, I guess.
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?
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.
The 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 io9.com, 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 about 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.
Subject: Hi, I’m a film maker and it would be great if I could interview you for my course?
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?
. . .
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. 😉
In observance of Throwback Thursday, today I’m posting this. 365 video clips, all exactly one second in length, each one representing one day of my life from the year 2014. That was the plan, at least. In actual fact, there are in total 336 clips here, representing all the days when I didn’t forget to pull out my phone and shoot something.
I got this idea from a fellow named Cesar Kuriyama. He’s been doing this same thing since 2011, and even did a TED talk about it. Like Cesar, I’ve always had trouble remembering events in my life. For the record, this exercise does help. But I think to some extent my memory of watching and re-watching these video clips comes to replace any recollection of actual events.
JOHN’S 2014 – BY THE NUMBERS
7 – trips to the movie theater
6 – scenes featuring cakes
8 – curses
29 – days I forgot to shoot video
33 – appearances of my dog. I’ve become one of those people.
13 – shots of a computer monitor. I’ve been one of those people for a long time.
ADDITIONAL NOTES AND EXPLAINING OF THINGS
July 15: Really, I don’t know what that explosion was.
September 14: Cat bitten while fighting neighbor’s cat – in the clip we’re cleaning the wound with peroxide.
November 14: The band is called Tennis Pro. They were playing the Napa Valley Film Festival, doing a pretty cool cover of A Hard Day’s Night. Here’s more of it.
Yesterday, around noon, we hit our fundraising goal for our film, NEW.
Our heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has donated and helped spread the word. Because of you, we’ll now be able to make a film we’ve been burning to do for a year now! We plan to be shooting soon, and have a movie for you all to see before the end of the year.
USA Projects has extended our campaign through May 24, so if you’ve not yet supported us with a donation, you still have time! The $22K goal represented the minimum budget need to make the project – any additional funds will be put to good use. That’s a promise!
Our deepest appreciation, from me, Sheila Harden, Don R. Lewis, Skot Christopherson and the entire NEW crew.