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To cut or not to cut
Written by James DeMarco writer/ director of The Stagg Do.
Mainly due to personal budgetary constraints i.e. I shot a feature film this summer and I’m fucking broke, I was unable to attend this year’s London Screen Writing Festival (LSWF).
I was at the first LSWF last year, and I also attended the Comedy Writer’s edition that they hosted earlier this year. For the record, overall I really had a good time, met some decent folk and learned shit loads about screenwriting and the UK film industry.
But today I’d like to talk to you about a different kind of learning. The kind of education you can’t get from books, lectures, speed pitches or even in one-to-one meetings. It’s called ‘just doing it’ - going out and making your own film.
In some ways, I’d have to say that I’ve gained more from my recent experiences of shooting and editing the film from my own screenplay than I could have ever from any screenwriting or filmmaking seminar (Robert McKee eat your fucking heart out!).
The turnaround of the screenplay for my first feature ‘The Stagg Do’ was ridiculously quick. One of the actors and I came up with the idea in late April, and after meeting a few times to work out a basic outline, I wrote a first-draft (75 pages) in about three weeks. From that time, right up to the start of principle photography in late July, I continued to rewrite, e.g. making the dialogue more authentic, restructuring, scene-by-scene analysis - all the things that screenwriters would normally do. Let’s call this phase one of the screenwriting process.
I’ll be the first to admit that the script could’ve done with more development, more rewrites, etc., but once we had set a production date, there was no turning back, everything was full steam ahead. For better or worse, the script had to be shot in its latest incarnation.
The Screenwriting Process Phase Two
Then a strange thing happened during the shoot. For a variety of reasons, but mainly due to time constraints, I was forced to rewrite on the fly. I found myself cutting extraneous lines of dialogue here and there, truncating and even dropping scenes out of the script all together. There were a few situations where the actors, some of whom were non-actors, couldn’t remember their lines, which forced me to completely redesign the scene to make it work.
As the shoot progressed (and we fell further behind) I found myself hemorrhaging gags -eliminating some of what I thought to be the funniest material, but dialogue and description which wasn’t really necessary to move the story forward (hopefully this will turn out to be a good thing, fingers crossed).
The Screenwriting Process Phase Three
Welcome to the edit. For the past few weeks, the editor and I have been spending hours trying to put the film together in a coherent, and, because it is a comedy, humorous way.
Continuity issues have sprung up (those pesky non-actors again) which have forced us to piece together scenes using different takes, resulting in marked differences between the original screenplay and what has ultimately wound up on the time line.
I have been forced to cut more “precious’ lines of dialogue, replace scenes, rewrite others, shoot pickups (e.g. I’ve added two different shots of full moons which work perfectly as transitions).
EXT. FIELD - NIGHT - A full moon shines overhead (never in the script).
And there’s more. Working in collaboration, the producer, editor and myself concocted an entirely new sequence which was never even in the original script; in fact it was never even written, just shot by myself and one of the actors. Ironically, this may be one of the best/ funniest scenes in the entire film!
Experiencing the three phases of screenwriting has been a real eye opener for me. A whole new way of screenwriting: writing from your feet, instead of from your arse. Come to think of it, I don’t I can recall ever hearing anything about it from McKee or any other Guru.
No picture on this blog - sorry to offend the purists! It's always difficult to write a ton about editing because it's a long and technical process and probably not even vaguely interesting to the hardened fan let alone the casual enthusiast. This week and a half has been really interesting to me (as a first time producer) though - you see our editor, David, is based in London these days. This means our edit has consisted of him working on the film there and then sending us the Final Cut Pro project file and us watching it here then chatting and exchanging notes over Skype - YAY modern technology. This is great and we have made some outstanding progress using this method - but nothing beats time spent in an edit suite sitting with your editor.
It's this time together that can produce the really spot on moments in a film. This "magic" (yes I vomited a little in my mouth there too) happens when a group of creative individuals have time and freedom to experiment. At the end of the day so much of filmmaking is about experimentation - it's art daaahling after all. That statement may sound odd coming from somebody like me who lambastes the artistes and their arty-farty award-winning shite which so often goes on to win major prizes but is seldom seen by the public at large, but really it isn't. I may not like arthouse cinema generally and often the films aren't my cup of tea, but I can and do admire the singular vision, courage and experimentation that goes to create it. What disappoints me most is why more mainstream cinema can't be more edgy and experimental (and I don't mean that in a Hollywood marketing - quirky way) what I mean is why the fuck has mainstream cinema become so derivative? It wasn't always this way - Godfather, Goodfellas, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot - all felt fresh at the time they came out and were al made by a Studio... what happened?
This obsession with comic books, remakes and sequels has to stop - it's driving me mad. And it drives me even more mad that this obsession with "playing it safe" is bleeding into the independent world too! You know what I'm saying: shoot in one location, use only a few actors don't take risks with framing or shooting style, don't shoot outdoors... Fuck that - on this we took a ton of risks some backfired spectacularly - but most of them didn't; but if we hadn't taken the risks, if we'd played it safe we wouldn't have those little "bits of magic" (VOMIT) that I'm so proud of. Tell your story, your way - fuck them - life's too short to do it any other way.
This is something BIG JIMMY DEMARCO and I have been thinking and talking a lot about lately and he wrote a little blog about the same subject from a writer's perspective last week - maybe it all goes back to the gurus?
Garbuttelli is up here at the moment, so instead of emailing project files back and forth we are actually all able to spend time in the edit together.
It's very gratifying to see the film take shape and once again James and I are grateful to everyone who has helped us get this far.
Terry Tito Franco
Reproduced from director James DeMarco's blog.
Terry Francona will always be remembered as the most successful Red Sox manager of all time, and his recent dismissal has left me (and probably most of Red Sox Nation), feeling a bit depressed. But after the infamous September swoon, someone had to pay the price.
Don’t get me wrong, “Tito’s” 8-year-tenure as Sox manager wasn’t perfect. Sometimes he backed slumping players for too long (e.g. Carl Crawford, Tim Wakefield and others). Some critics thought he should’ve called out John Lackey for staring him down during his all-too-frequent visit to the pitcher’s mound to mercifully pull Lackey from the game.
The main rap on Tito was that he was too much of a ‘players’ manager, which I guess translates to - he was too soft on the players, i.e. he was a weak manager. Even if that were true, he always had his players’ backs. During his tenure, he never publicly humiliated or dressed down any member of the team, rarely giving the carnivorous Boston Media anything to exploit. He reserved his ire, concern or criticism for behind closed doors, out of the lime light, away from the sharks. I’m sure most of the players respected him for it.
The reason why I bring all this up is that I can see a little of myself in Terry Francona. When it comes to filmmaking, I don’t believe in shouting at, castigating or humiliating any members of the cast and crew in public. My motto has always been to treat people the way you want to be treated. So if someone makes a mistake, and let’s face it we all do, you take them aside privately and try to resolve it without letting it interfere with the bigger picture, namely trying to make the best film possible - or as Zahra said when I first moved to the UK, “don’t take any shit and don’t give any shit.”
Unfortunately, it seems as if a lot of film people view this type of management as a sign of being weak. In my admittedly limited experience on sets, I’ve found that for some strange, twisted reason, some filmmakers enjoy seeing the Director or Producer having a go at crew in public view. It’s almost as if shouting and humiliating a crew member is a way to gain credibility and respect - to show everyone who’s boss! I’m sorry, but that seems pretty fucked up to me.
I don’t think it’s necessary, and, more important, I don’t think it works. Why would it? Studies have proven that this type of management is unsuccessful in child rearing, and definitely not a productive strategy in business management. In fact I would surmise that when you chastise a cast or crew member in front of his peers or colleagues, he or she is more likely to spend the rest of the shoot conjuring up ways to get back at you and/ or your production. And nobody wants that.
What I find worst about the shout and humiliate style of management is that it’s often inconsistent, primarily aimed at the weakest of the crew or the newbies. Take my recent film “The Stagg Do” for example - do you really think that any member of management would have the balls to shout at Pob or Craig? I doubt it. Well, maybe Zahra, but only if they shouted at her first.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that if it is in your DNA that you must really act like a prick, then act like a prick. Scream, shout, humiliate - you have my blessing. But at least be consistent about it. Don’t just shout at the defenseless intern and turn a blind eye to other, more intimidating members of cast or crew. Because that makes you a hypocrite.
Which brings me back to Terry Francona, just because a person doesn’t rant, rave or humiliate members of his cast, crew or TEAM, doesn’t mean he’s not passionate about his job or project. Nor does it mean that he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.
The independent film industry seems to have this unwritten code that management must appear and behave in a certain way, which includes acting like a callous twat on set. As I’ve said many times before - this is filmmaking, we’re not saving lives. This is supposed to be fun! The film set doesn’t have to look like a war zone or Carrie’s night at the highschool prom. In retrospect, I believe that having a relaxed film set (or even relaxed baseball *team*) is nearly impossible to achieve with people screaming, berating, blaming and backstabbing their coworkers.
You can always bet on certain things going wrong on a no-budget shoot: i.e. actors forgetting lines or arriving late; key crew members becoming ill or having to quit because of other paying gigs; props not working, the weather being shit (especially in the North East of England), running out of time in a location, etc. etc. etc... but whether you’re a baseball manager or a film director, what you don’t expect is your team to quit on you - that really is unforgivable. As the late great Vince Lombardi said: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.”
Would I do it all again? Of course. Despite all the problems, pain and hardship we endured during our 8-day shoot, in the end we still made a feature film. That in itself is far better than not making a film. When I think back to the day in late April when Pob and I came up with the premise of “The Stagg Do”, the turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. I wrote the script in less than a month. The entire project was put together in a matter of weeks. Some amazing stuff.
I’ll continue to take away the positives from the shoot, and look at the negatives as just part of the filmmaking experience. Just like Tito Francona, I will live and learn.
As I have alluded on this blog before we had some major problems on The Stagg Do shoot, Lucas McNelly whom I've talked about here and who you can follow here recently wrote this blog on the A Year Without Rent project site about where on-set problems come from and how to avoid them. This got me thinking more about some of our problems and how we should have seen them coming. I've taken his blog (italics) and written a response/ explanation to each point. Before you read though it's important to know that I agree 100% with his 5 rules and that generally ie on the 20+ shorts we've made before, we've adhered to them all!
The thing is most film shoots suffer from a variety of problems and as Lucas so rightly points out, they usually stem from the same few causes. It's funny, I guess, that he is spending a year travelling around working on all of these films and yet he still gets confronted by the same issues time and time again - not least on The Stagg Do where we broke at least four of these rules. Haha - guess the philosopher in me says: I'm glad I'm not Lucas, maybe he should rename AYWR as Groundhog Shoot.
1. Hire Good People
UP COUNTRY isn't really one of our projects (well, the production part, anyway), but we had one really, really inept crew member. He shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. Luckily, he was at the bottom of the totem pole, but I've seen producers who shouldn't have been anywhere near the set. It happens all over the place. And it isn't always because they're inept. Sometimes they just can't handle the job. Sometimes their personality clashes with the people they're supposed to be working with. Whatever the situation, these are things you (and I) should be figuring out in pre-production. Check references. Ask around. You can learn a lot about someone by talking to people they've worked with.
I think a lot of our problems on The Stagg Do came from this basic mistake. Not that we hired bad people per se, but we had a hodge-podge crew - some people with no previous experience but a lot of willingness and then some people with lots of experience. What didn’t work though was the different styles and personalities. James and I fundamentally believe that you shouldn’t shout at people to make them work harder and that “buy-in” is way more important. I like a loose set not something that resembles a military operation, and I know that if you shout at me the last thing I’m going to do is work hard for you. That doesn’t mean that being a “hard-ass” is wrong and from my experience the people with “hard-ass” reputations do work harder and use their own exacting standards on themselves, I just see that the two styles are in direct contrast with each other and don’t dovetail well* (*at all).
This is totally on me as I didn’t do my homework and make the calls needed to find out what people would be like on set. I built a bad team. Lesson learned for next time.
The other thing which has become apparent in the interceding time, mainly as a result of last week’s pick up/ reshoot night, was that we had too many people on set. The crew was too big. Of course I sought advice from people while crewing up - but in hindsight we could have lost about 5 crew without any discernible difference, except the positive one of streamlining the crew.
Having the right blend of personalities I think is the most important lesson to take from this, which reminds me how not only did we break Lucas' rule - but also that in doing so we broke FNA's number one rule: "We don't want the best person for a role if they don't have the personality to fit with our team." - FNA4Life and all that.
2. Do Your Homework
You don't always have to do storyboards. Lots of filmmakers don't. You don't even necessarily need a shot list. Or a script. But, dammit, you have to know your story. You have to know what you want and how to get it. Otherwise, you're just floundering around on set. It looks weak. And when you look weak, the sharks will find you. And when the sharks find you, I write that shit down.
James (full disclosure - my partner as well as the writer/ director) always knows his project, he knew where the problems were likely to come from ie the actors (we had two non actors in the leads) and so wanted to spend as much time as possible concentrating on the performances. This meant a LOT of work fell on the AD and DoP, this had been planned and okayed by the DoP and the AD - with meetings and Skypes in advance to let them know what was needed shot-wise so James could devote most of his time on-set to rehearsing the cast. Unfortunately this didn’t really work out the way it was supposed to, maybe because they didn’t have big/ experienced enough departments to deal with it properly.
What surprised me most was that when we started floundering people didn’t tell me (and I was there or thereabouts most of the time). This meant that often people made mistakes (it’s okay, we all do) which meant people started to not trust each other - which is where the problems become huge! TRUST is a massive part of teamwork. We had three “factions” (I use the term loosely - cause it wasn’t “that bad”) and none of them really trusted each other - mainly because they had all seen the mistakes the others made, which created this lack of faith. The thing is everyone makes mistakes - and believe me on our shoot EVERYONE did make mistakes, the key for me though is to acknowledge your own failings and admit to them rather than covering them up and pointing the finger! At the end of the day it was/ is mine and James’ film and mine and James’ money on the line - if we aren’t stressing and blowing a gasket at every given opportunity why should anyone else? Life and by extension filmmaking is basically a series of problems - how you deal with those problems says more about you than you could ever imagine! CLUE: Moaning and blaming other people doesn’t make the problem go away.
Then there are the unexpected problems (that come from using non-professional actors) we were using one of the actor’s cars as the action vehicle. We had been told we could use it on the Saturday and Sunday (Day 1 and Day 2) but not during the week as his wife needed it. We built a lot of the schedule around the availability of the car. The actor turned up to his costume fitting the day before we started and said we couldn’t use the car on the Sat and Sun but we could use it during the week! This of course fucked the schedule before we started and that was the root cause of a ton of the hassle. In fairness to the actor (as a non pro) he had no idea that this simple switcheroo with his wife could have such a massive impact on everything else!
Preparation is key in all of this, of course, and really condensing prep into a few short weeks maybe was a dumbass thing to do - but as they say sometimes you have to seize the day, and I seriously believe if we hadn't shot The Stagg Do when we did then FNA would still be waiting to shoot their first feature. We took a lot of risks on this project, some worked and a few backfired - but you know what they say: "Fortune favours the brave."
3. Feed People
Seriously. Fucking feed people. There should be a craft services table with healthy snacks on it. And meals. Real meals. On-time. If you're shooting on location and the crew lives on location, then you are responsible for all 3 meals. A hungry crew is a grumpy crew. It takes very little to turn a grumpy crew into an angry crew. You don't want an angry crew.
As for beer: wrap beers are a good idea. On-set beers are a bad idea.
Catering was always going to be a nightmare on this, not so much from a budget point of view but from a logistical one, as we were in the middle of nowhere, on night shoots. The three days I had left myself to plan catering got swallowed by replacing the sound department (the recordist broke his hand just before the shoot). I think for two days the food was sandwiches - which is shit and for that I hold my hands up and apologise, it wasn’t good enough. We did have a barbecue on one day though and fresh fish and chips on another - so it wasn’t all bad! Beer? On-set beer was a feature, not one I was particularly happy about - but I can see both sides. And because of how the schedule worked out we kind of had two wrap parties, which for me personally made up for a lot of the shit that we’d gone through.
Yeah I should've leaned even heavier on my mate Dawn - she could've and would've catered the whole thing under budget, but as most of the crew were staying in her house I felt asking another favour would have been taking the piss. But lesson learned: "Shy bairns get ne sweets." aka "The crew of shy producers get crap food."
4. Call Sheet
The crew should have a call sheet before they wrap for the night. At bare minimum, a call time that's clear to everyone. Don't assume word will get around. People like to know if they have to be up at 6am or 10am before they decide if they want to start drinking.
But, seriously, a call sheet should have more information than you think it needs. The schedule. The scenes to be shot. The weather. Directions to crew parking. The crew is going to carry it around all day, so give them all the information they need.
Our schedule snafus caused by the car situation meant that we were rescheduling on the fly for the first three or four days, this of course meant call sheets often didn’t arrive until midnight - and at least once I totally missed someone off the distribution list! Of course it didn’t help that in the midst of all this shit shovelling (which let’s face it, when things go spectacularly wrong - is what it is) that the cool heads didn’t always prevail and help head off other situations before they blew up; this turned a little snowball into a full blown avalanche! The last day, I did the callsheet - it was poo. Seriously poo.
Once the schedule goes tits up on the eve of principle photography you're always facing an uphill battle. Make sure your trenches are filled with people who are up for the fight.
Things will go wrong. The schedule will change. When it does, tell people. The people working on this film with you aren't your employees, they're your creative partners. Treat them as such. The crew probably knows before you do that you aren't going to make your day. What they don't know is how you're going to adjust. So keep them in the loop. If you know that you're going 3 hours over the scheduled wrap time, it's a good idea to get everyone else's buy-in. If they say "no", then they're the bad guys. If you don't ask, you're the bad guy.
Fortunately this wasn’t a major issue for us as our schedule was dictated by the light. We shot when it was dark and stopped at sun up. Having said that I do think on set communication was a problem throughout, with people making decisions they shouldn’t and then not even feeding back to the director or producer! I guess if James or I had been hard-asses then that at least wouldn't have happened! LOL.
This one always makes me laugh more than any other - we are in the business of communication, yet too often as practitioners we forget this and bottle stuff up or think the jungle drums will pass the message on. Not true - be proactive and make sure the message is loud and clear.
You'll notice that none of these things have anything to do with your budget. Well, the food does, but if you don't have the budget to feed people, you should be making a smaller movie. This is almost entirely a list of things that involve organization or being a good boss. Management 101 stuff. And it's in your control, whether your budget is $1,000 or $1,000,000. And, really, if you can't do these things, you shouldn't be surprised when things fall apart. Because they probably will. And you definitely shouldn't be surprised when I write about your production being a disorganized clusterfuck, even if it doesn't seem like that to you.
But if you can handle that (and really, it's a pretty basic list), you shouldn't be all that worried. If you really do the work, I'm going to write about that. So man up (or woman up) and get on the schedule already.
Was our film disorganised? Definitely. Could it have been better organised? Probably. Was it a clusterfuck? It wouldn’t have been if everyone had been pulling in the same direction - ie if we had a team - rather than a dozen individuals all trying to protect their corner so they don’t lose face in front of Lucas.
Should you have Lucas on your set? Yes. Because if nothing else (and there is more - he works really hard and he knows his shit) having that fuck off big spotlight that he brings shows you ALL of the cracks in your organisation and helps you root out the crap - and that can only be a good thing in the long run. In the short term it’s the kind of catharsis that feels like a root canal however!
Of course having seen Lost In La Mancha and Hearts Of Darkness you can't always tell from the shoot how the film will turn out (or not!) - and at the end of the day if the film turns out okay or great nobody gives a fuck about the process! It's just a shame we didn't have someone recording our "behind the scenes" - it would've been a doozy!!!
So what is the overall lesson I've learned from all of this? Making films is bloody hard work, and people act/ react differently under pressure - but overall it's more like a lesson I've relearned: It's not rocket science and we are not saving lives. ENJOY.
Will try our best to keep this busy during the shoot and post-production.