What’s it like being the writer and director?

Being the writer and the director on a project it seems that you both create the story and then bring it to life. What are the biggest struggles in doing this? And how much liberty do you allow an actor to take with the lines?

— Steve
Lakeland, Florida

For readers who don’t know, I just finished directing an indie movie that will hopefully see the light of day in 2007. (I’ve been chastened against continuing to call it a tiny movie, because it’s not about an albino’s friendship with a cricket, or somesuch. The producers would like me to stress that it actually does have commercial prospects, even if not measured on a blockbuster scale.)

For me, the biggest challenge in being a writer/director is that I really wasn’t a writer while I was on set. I was 100% director, figuring out how to get the scene to work, how to get the performances right, how to get in four more setups before lunch. On other films, when I’ve been “just” the writer on set, I’d often notice things that the director might overlook — small inconsistencies or subtle changes that could screw things up four scenes later.

But here, there was no writer. There was just me. And I was too busy directing the scene to step out and think about the bigger picture.

To some degree, I’d anticipated this going in, so I tried to compensate. “John’s Big Notebook” was a fat three-ring binder that held not only the script and the storyboards, but also my notes on every scene — sort of a last chance for the writer to tell the director what to pay attention to. (In truth, I ran out of time in prep, so the scene notes stopped after the first act.)

During production, I got up at five every morning to write the day’s shot list, which is basically a crib sheet for what shots I thought I would need to shoot in order to complete a given scene. That was usually my last chance to really study the scripted scene and figure out what was important.

I also relied on others. The script supervisor would point out if I was omitting a scripted action, and my producers were nearby to offer assistance.

But at times, the writer resurfaced. One night while watching dailies, I realized something new about one of the characters. So I rewrote a scene for the next day. After two solid weeks of strictly directing, it was oddly exhilarating to remember that I am in fact a writer. Directing is just my day job.

In terms of leeway with the dialogue, I was always willing to let the actors say something better. Often, it wasn’t better, so after a take or two, I’d nudge them back onto the text. (This is also the script supervisor’s domain.) I don’t think I was being particularly writer-ly in getting actors to stick to the script. John August, director, knew what he wanted. Most actors, these actors, respond well to thoughtful requests.

One section of the movie has a combination of scripted and unscripted scenes, which ended up being my favorite thing to shoot. The luxury of having gifted actors and a lot of videotape is that they could simply start having a conversation in character, and seamlessly work in all of the scripted material. One scene had an 18-minute continuous take.

To me, this section was the best synthesis of writing and directing. While I was listening, I had to keep thinking how to steer the scene in an interesting direction. It was a screenwriter’s dream: My characters were alive in front of me, looking for something to talk about.


So I made a movie

My extended absence from johnaugust.com can now be explained: I’ve just finished shooting a movie, an honest-to-God feature film. A tiny film, to be certain, more likely to be seen at festivals than fourteen-plexes, but a movie nonetheless.

Officially, it’s my directing debut, but it hasn’t really felt like it.

As screenwriters go, I’ve always been pretty involved in production. (For instance, I directed second unit on Go.) And in television, the creator of a show ends up playing a huge role on set; my two pilots have been like directing with a seasoned pro to spot me. So even though I couldn’t necessarily say which light is working as key and which one as fill, I felt confident pointing with two fingers in a V to indicate “camera goes here.”

So what’s the movie about?

Well, here’s where I slink back into secrecy a bit. Trust me: My silence is only to protect you from fatigue and boredom. Even in the fastest timeline, we’re editing through the end of the year, then playing festivals in 2007. If a distributor buys the film, then maybe, maybe we would show up in theaters at the end of 2007, but 2008 is probably more likely.

I have trouble staying interested in a movie for 80 minutes, much less 18 months. So I’ll save the details until we’re much, much closer.

Suffice to say it’s a drama — hopefully funny in places, but unlikely to be slotted in the “Comedy” section of Blockbuster. (Assuming Blockbuster still exists in 2008.) It’s currently untitled (or, Untitled John August Project on IMDb). But it’s not the Untitled John August Project from several years ago at Sony, which I can tell you now was sort of like King Kong but scarier. And never got written.

The Movie (which is how I’ll refer to it from now on) is broken into three parts, like Go, but that’s pretty much the only similarity to Go. The Movie both is and isn’t a sequel to an earlier work, which I mean as cryptically as possible.

We shot 22 days in Los Angeles, with two days in New York City (where I am as I type this). We had a terrific cast, and an extremely hard-working crew — pretty much all union, which is rare for such a tiny movie. We shot a combination of film and video, with everything being posted in HD.

In coming weeks and months, I’ll write more about the process. But for now, I’ll be getting ready for the helicopter unit.

Yes, we’re a tiny movie with helicopter shots. Who wrote this shit?


Making the geek movie

When you know computers pretty well, you start seeing certain things in certain movies as being rather idiotic. A huge amount of pictures scrolling by during a search, 3D graphics exploding out of an old laptop during hacking in HACKERS, people using Microsoft Word as a magical web search engine, etc. That stuff never happens in real life!

To a techie, it’s as realistic as trouts flying by in the background during a romantic love scene in a desert.

The good thing is, things are looking up. Real hacking is being shown in mainstream movies, a good example being the usage of NMap and an old SSH exploit in MATRIX: RELOADED. Sure, the movie wasn’t centered around it, but it was kind of neat. (There’s more such goodness in the original version of the MATRIX script.)

CONTACT was a movie built entirely around physics and technology that wasn’t afraid to use them and it was successful as well.

Do you think there’s room in the amateur movie scene for a movie that not only portrays the hacker subculture, (and by ‘hackers’ we mean ‘really experienced computer users’ not just the ‘evil’ ones) but literally swims in it, twisting and turning around it, weaving in and out of it, wrapping itself around it and being wrapped inside it, like a Klein bottle? I mean, there’s a market for it, yes, but the market consists of, well, people like us. Could a technical movie be a success on film festivals? And what advice would you give us? (Other than “get a life and do something useful.”)

— Elver
Estonia

Great question, and great home country. I only spent about twelve hours in lovely Tallinn, Estonia, but it completely lived up to its over-hype about being the next Prague (but quainter). Doubters, may I direct you to this photo.

Now, on to the matter of your proposed geek opus.

Yes, Elver, yes. There is definitely room in the film universe for a uber-geek movie, be it a thriller, a drama, a comedy or whatever. Film festivals would love it, and even if your film didn’t cross over to become a giant mainstream movie, who cares?

Let me offer proof by way of comparison. Take Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne’s excellent SIDEWAYS, which is overwhelmingly obsessed with wine in ways that no normal audience member could hope to fathom. Even though we don’t really understand the intricacies of what they’re discussing — I dare you to find a topic less cinematic than pinot noir grapes — we believe the characters know what they’re talking about, and that helps make it fascinating. Sideways is a wine-geek movie, and if it hadn’t been brilliant on all its other levels, it still would have had a following among oenophiles.

An even closer comparison is Shane Carruth’s PRIMER. Although it only progressed slightly beyond the festival circuit, it’s certain to do great on DVD. Like Pi before it, Primer consists of geeky people saying a lot of ponderous gibberish without any nod to audience understanding. I loved it.

So by all means, make your geek movie. Hell, shoot it in Tallinn. Just make sure that while you’re being accurate and honest with all the techie details, you’re also being accurate and honest with the human emotions in the story. Do it right, do it well, and I’ll be the first in line.

(Originally posted January 21, 2005.)


Rejection

When you were starting out, how did you deal with rejection? Also, what advice can you give on the proper way to send out your work?

–Alan Wojcik

I dealt with rejection the same way I deal with it now: vodka.

No, but seriously. The truth is, a screenwriter is going to face rejection over and over again, and not just at the beginning of his career. There will always be a job you wanted and didn’t get, or a snub you didn’t see coming. Eventually, you learn that you can’t depend on strangers for validation.

At least, one day I hope to learn that.

If it’s any consolation, there are people who have it even worse than writers: actors. Whereas a writer might be rejected for his work, an actor can be rejected simply for their face. Or butt. Or voice.

Which ties into the second part of your question: how to send out your work. Think of your script as an actor going out on an audition. You want it to look its best: properly formatted, no typos, and two good brass brads that won’t unbend halfway through the script. Don’t give the reader any chance to ding your work simply for its appearance.

Oh, and your script should be really, really well-written. That’s the most important thing.

(Originally posted September 10, 2003)


Gone fishin’

FishSince I haven’t posted for more than a week, several readers have written in to make sure I hadn’t gotten trapped in an air vent, or shanked by a pencil-wielding grammar prescriptivist.

I assure you I’m fine. Great, actually. I’m just busy as hell on a new project that will keep me away from the keyboard for pretty much the entire month of June.

How busy am I?

  • I had no idea who won American Idol until I randomly overheard it.
  • The season finales of Lost, Alias and Desperate Housewives are sitting on my TiVo. La-la-la-la (fingers in ears), I don’t want to know.
  • I look at people reading newspapers and think, wistfully, “I remember when I used to read newspapers.”

To provide the illusion of new content here on the site, I’ll be pulling up some older articles from the archives. But make no mistake, I’m gone. My assistant Chad will be managing the moderation queue, however, so feel free to chime in.

Meanwhile, Josh Friedman has promised to start blogging more to make up for my absence. (Okay, maybe he didn’t actually say it. But I felt it.)

Peace out. See you in July.


How do I break into Hollywood?

Short answer: You don’t.

Slightly longer answer: The question is meaningless.

I recently co-hosted a series of panel discussions for the USC School of Cinema-Television aimed at helping current students and recent graduates think about the first years out in the real world. “How do I break in” was the unspoken question in almost every session, so much so that I had to call it out in the wrap-up.

Here’s why it’s an invalid question: there is no “breaking in.”

For people just starting their careers in the film industry, it often seems like there’s a wall keeping them out, or at least a velvet rope, manned by a burly guy with a clipboard and a bad attitude. But the wall, the rope and the bouncer are all illusions. There’s no systematic effort to keep newcomers out of Hollywood. (On the contrary, in many categories there’s a disturbing tendency to favor the young at all costs.)

So if there isn’t a wall, why does it feel like there’s a wall?

Well, okay. There’s a wall. But it’s not a keep-out-the-infidels kind of wall. Rather, it’s a keep-the-roof-from-falling-down kind of wall. There’s a structure to Hollywood, a kind of ramshackle mansion that’s always teetering on collapse. The front door isn’t so much jammed as inaccessible, stuffed full of take-out menus and other solicitations.

So if there isn’t a front door, how does one get inside? You look for a window, a side entrance, a dusty chimney.

That’s what the seminar was about: looking for windows.

A sizable number of attendees were aiming for the below-the-line trades (such as editors, DPs, and visual effects), where there’s a pretty clear career path, roughly approximating the apprenticeship of the old-tyme trades. Basically, one works countless hours for middling pay while learning from experts, then eventually strikes out to shoot, light, edit or visually effect on one’s own. I’m not saying it’s easy — it’s exhausting. But it’s comfortably predictable.

Not so for the writers, or the writer-directors. One panelist, explaining her search for an agent, described her incredibly focused campaign to win every writing award imaginable and target very specific agents whose clients were already working on the TV shows she was suited for. But she didn’t talk about “breaking in,” because once she was staffed on a show, it was clear that there was never really an inside. She was a working writer, but could just as easily find herself a non-working writer by the end of the season. There was no wall, fence or other boundary metaphor dividing those two states.

So I’d ask everyone to disabuse themselves of the idea of “breaking into Hollywood.” It’s not like pledging a fraternity, losing one’s virginity, or pulling off a heist. It’s just getting a job, which is boring and real, and difficult enough without any inflated imagery.