Today the first official trailer launched for Bread and Butter, the independent film I worked on last year. I think it very solidly captures the quirky voice of the film.
Bread and Butter, starring Christine Weatherup, Bobby Moynihan, Micah Hauptman, Eric Lange, Lauren Lapkus, Sean Wright, Dawn Didawick and Harry Groener. Written/Directed by Liz Manashil
I became involved with Bread and Butter because of Christine Weatherup, the actress who plays the lead role in the film. She’s been a close friend and colleague for many years now, dating back to when she acted in a staged reading of a play of mine. She is how I became involved with Squaresville, for which she is producer and co-star and her husband Matt Enlow is creator/writer/director.
I remember having coffee with her when she confided in me how much she wanted this role, and the kindly relentless campaign she was mounting to convince writer/director Liz Manashil that she was the woman for it.
Liz has years of experience in the film festival world, and is one of the hosts of PBS’s film review show Just Seen It. Since this film is going to be touring film festivals, where the first question she will be inevitably asked at every single screening will be what her budget was, I will not rob from her the ritual experience of answering that question. Instead, I will just say that it was absolutely insanely low, and that some filmmakers would have been challenged to get this movie made for ten times the money she had.
Once I learned that Christine had won the role, I reached out to Liz on my own just to offer any help that I could to help see this movie brought to life. There’s a lot of cross-training in my resume, so I can be thrown into a lot of differnt jobs – and even if it’s a job I’ve never done before, I have learned on-the-fly many times.
We met and she told me that they were having trouble getting a boom operator for the length of the shooting schedule. I volunteered for six out of the sixteen production days, which was quite a workout for my shoulder muscles – the sound recordist told me “do this often enough, and you’ll get muscles that only swimmers have”. I had boomed previously – never with training and never particularly well, I thought – but here for the first time I picked up some good information that I’ll be able to use if called upon again. Given the course of my life and career so far, smart money says I’ll be holding a boom mic again.
It was – and I’ll be glad for the day when this is less of a surprise – the most female-heavy set I have ever worked on. Female producers, female director, female A.D., cinematographer, production designer, and so on and so on. It was a conscious decision by Liz to enhance what was to her a very personal perspective, and her collaborators did tremendous work in every department while creating the positive atmosphere necessary to survive when there’s this much work and this little money.
I made many friends on the set, and had a great time chatting with Micah Hauptman and Saturday Night Live‘s Bobby Moynihan, who play the two dating prospects in the movie. Bobby had a voice role in Pixar’s Monsters University, which was due to be released soon – it was his first big animated feature and he was geeked to the ceiling about the whole process.
A couple of months after production wrapped, Liz put out word on Facebook that she was looking for a voice actor to record a couple of lines. By coincidence, I was on-line and I responded immediately, since I have begun pursuing this sort of thing when possible. Less than a half-hour later, I was at her apartment talking into her Mac Laptop.
I still don’t know if my voice-over will be included in the final cut, it was an idea she wanted to present in test screenings, but just the fact that it happened is one of my favorite things about L.A., that what started as a cold e-mail I sent to a stranger led to her trusting me to add something creatively to the tone of her film with my voice.
I gripe sometimes here about the free labor economy in L.A., and I probably should do a comprehensive post at some point about the etiquette involved; because I think there are situations where it is excusable. For the record, I am thoroughly okay with having volunteered my services for Bread & Butter. For one – I was the one that reached out, it wasn’t an ad posted to a listing service. For another, I was reaching out to support an amazing opportunity for a friend. It’s different when strangers are expecting I should be grateful they give me the chance to work for free.
And in the end, I had the opportunity to develop skills that could make me money, and I may end up with a voice acting credit in a feature, which is directly useful to me and my career goals. That’s how you get someone to be happy to work for free – make it a real win-win.
Urth Caffe on Melrose is a great place for a salad or a cuppa but a horrible place to approach by car. If you don’t live nearby and must look for parking, your best bet is inside an Elvish Bag of Holding. One of the survival skills of any entertainment career is learning where to park for your meetings. I happened to know (since I had just had a meeting here 5 days before), that one of the neighborhood streets allowed for two hours unmetered, and usually had a spot less than 5 minutes’ walk; basically ideal for business.
The first producer I worked for works out of his house now, and is making more movies than ever. I have far more business meetings in cafes than offices these days. This could be a consequence of real estate prices, it could also be that so many of us have been cast loose from any semblance of organization, and are floating free in the bloodstream of the city, gathering sometimes but never stopping. The hustle gets harder every year, and we have fewer assets to do it with, but we keep at it.
As I walked up the sidewalk towards the cafe, I saw one of the producers I was scheduled to meet. He was holding down two outdoor tables, and a spaceman was talking to him. Actually a gray and windblown man in a classic 50′s-style homemade silver pajamas spacesuit, with a cardboard helmet becrusted with shiny fake jewels. He was fearlessly and relentlessly approaching every customer and passerby, offering to sell them, for only $5 a DVD of the film he had made. This town runs on chutzpah, and while he had the slurry aura and patter of a homeless person who had had a little too much of the useful juice squeezed out of the spongy tissues of his brain, he had apparently made a movie. Which, it must be acknowledged, probably put him ahead of half the denizens of the Urth Caffe.
I got in line for my drink, and soon my director friend arrived. I told him about the accomplished filmmaker on the sidewalk and he replied: “Oh, the spaceman? I’ve seen him before. Love that guy.”
We ordered and joined the producer, and soon we were joined by two other producers and the conversation was off and running. It was a good day, a serious day, with great potential for a movie to emerge from the meeting. It can take patience and effort beyond most people to get to a meeting like this.
It went well – at least, as well as perception can tell. I am almost too-addicted to concrete confirmation these days, because I know how many of these possibilities will inevitably be mirages. If there is a check, a greenlight, a film, you will hear about it, never doubt. Until then – it was a fine conversation with good beverages in a town where you can convene on the patio in January.
At one point the conversation turned to famous comedic actors – this movie, if made, would provide space for a cameo or two by this type of celebrity. L.A. has a unique sense for kismet, because at that moment, Jon Lovitz arrived at the cafe, walking his dog. And it says something about L.A.’s sense of blase entitlement that you might look at an occurrence like that and think “well, sure, kismet, but maybe we could do a little better?”
Naturally, when Lovitz emerged from the cafe, he proceeded up the sidewalk and ran into Will Ferrell at the corner. The two stood and chatted (along with, I think, Anchorman director Adam McKay), for a good ten minutes, right behind the shoulder of one of the producers at our table. About two minutes in, a photographer with an enormous lens appeared across the street – sprouting out of the ground, I think. This was not Will Ferrell and Jon Lovitz in high glamour – they were in track suits and ballcaps, just walking the neighborhood for ordinary reasons. Still, the city has decided such things cannot go unphotographed. Within five minutes, three more photographers had appaered, and I imagined them barreling out of a very small car.
And I was momentarily awed by the fact that these people who had reached the very top of the Hollywood mountain were sharing a sidewalk just a few paces away from that ambitious spaceman, in a neighborhood where nobody, rich or poor, can find a good parking spot.
So, by convoluted means, I am, as of today, the assistant editor on a feature film. I have never done this job before, but am going to learn as I go; I’m working with a friend who has organized the tasks into layers of gradually-increasing sophistication and decreasing-tedium; which means for the next few days it’s going to be pretty much all eye-glazingly repetitive. I don’t mind that at all; I learn better starting at the ground floor.
In truth, I did take that one Avid class about six years ago, and even though this editor is using Adobe Premiere Pro, which I have never used, software is software and these first tasks really just boil down to organizing and labeling things according to the editor’s preference. So today’s “training” took all of ten minutes and now I’ve got my work for the next few days; and once I’ve finished that, he’ll train me on the next step.
I love chances to learn; I love them more when I can get paid for them, which is pretty damn rare. And every dollar I can make working on something creative is a dollar I don’t have to make by other means; which I love even more.
Because I was a math junkie long before I even thought about writing, I tend to apply all sorts of horribly-nerdy mathematical/organizational principles to my writing. I keep a spreadsheet list of basically everything I would like to write – screenplays, short stories, novels, stage plays of any length; and one thing that has mutated far beyond a screenplay and which I might have to re-conceive as some kind of limited series for TV/web.
Even when I have drafted something, that doesn’t always remove it from the list; since, after all, major re-writes are just a part of the trade. The list can be daunting – these days, if I get a new idea that’s too good to dismiss, my first reaction actually tends to be irritation; since it means a shuffling around of priorities. There are worse problems to have, I know. And I know that the glut of them means there are some I will simply never get to. One hopes that some subconscious Lodestar assures that the worst ones are the ones that go unrealized; but how well can we ever really know that?
The top of the list right now has been unchanging for a couple of months – the novel, followed by a couple of screenplay re-writes. One of the re-writes was scheduled to be finished on April 1st for reasons that I won’t jinx by describing here. I wrapped up an early version of that re-write on March 15th and sent it out to a couple members of the team, in the hopes that they could read it in a week or so and bounce it back in case anything further needed to be done before the bigwigs read it on the first. This is a relatively common scenario for a re-write out here, in that it can actually break into components along the way.
To a shock so great I hardly know how to process it; not only did they find that the March 15th draft answered all their concerns, they felt so good about it that they started spreading it out further before they had even shared this good news to me. It’s the best possible scenario for this project, and a massive load off my mind. What it also means is that one of the biggest, most time-consuming titles parked at the top of that list gets to disappear completely for the forseeable future. I won’t have to work on this script again unless the team has broadened and re-configured in a way that means we’re closer to making the movie. At that point, I would be in a pretty good mood for re-writing, I guess.
I sometimes overlook sharing shareable information on the public blog when the private version of the announcement is couched in an overall private blog post. Just the way my brain works.
Anyway, it deserves announcing that I finished the first draft of my new spec screenplay a week ago; as I shared it is a horror script, which is a first for my portfolio and something I enjoyed the hell out of crafting. My first goal had been a lean 90-95 pages; as I got into the “mayhem” half of the script and started plotting out gags and kills, I revised my goal to “let’s just squeeze under 100″. Instead it’s 101 pages. I can get that down with time; and it’s still one of the leanest scripts I’ve written since I started actually knowing what I was doing.
It’s out to the inner circle right now, and once I’ve collected feedback from them, I’ll make some tweaks and then share it with a strategic few more. In Hollywood it’s always been true – It Takes a Village – and I’ll need some friendly Villagers in my posse to get this thing rolling.
If it sounds like I’m risking some exposure of what will be barely more than a first draft – that’s what I’m doing. But I have faith in the outline and the premise and the energy of the script. One of the reasons I spend so long on the brainstorming/outlining phase is because I am lazy in the long term – I want to write absolutely as few drafts as possible, so I try and lick the fundamentals before I ever open up Celtx (the screenwriting software I use for reasons of it being free).
As for the next project – well, I’m going to spend some time on a prose commission, as well as try and draft the final piece for the short story collection I want to publish. I have two very personal, rule-breaking screenplays that I have been tinkering with for years and years and years; during windows like this they tend to get a few more pages added to them; although it would be nice to actually finish one or both of them before I die.
I’ll owe re-writes on two other screenplays before April, both of them requested by people on the respective teams for those projects. It feels good to have a lot of work out there with allies who actively want to bring it to life. I basically say it every year, but there’s a real chance of making something great this year. I feel like I’m doing my part towards that goal, anyway.
I didn’t celebrate much, unless you count ordering a birthday cake milkshake at The Counter. In a way, spending a week away from a deadline – even a self-driven one – is a kind of vacation unto itself. But honestly, I should at least buy a nice drink. I’m meeting someone for drinks tonight. I’ll make sure and do that.
I’ve reached 80 pages on the screenplay, and have another writing session to look forward to in a couple of hours. And my chances of bringing this first draft in under 100 pages as I so want to do are…decent? Not guaranteed, but possible; and there are some built-in indulgences that will probably get sacrificed along the way.
On New Year’s Day I had 37 pages, so this has been a stupefying pace for me, and I think I’m starting to feel the fatigue. While writing at lunch today I felt like the stage directions lacked the manic punch I had been enjoying so much about this script. And I worry that I’m out-writing my sense of the coherence and rhythm of the story.
Lately I am hearing some other professional screenwriters discuss the concept of “the vomit draft” – where the point is you just get the first draft over with as absolutely quickly as possible; without heed to logic or cleanliness or grammar or anything. Since it’s such a torturous behemoth of a task getting it on paper to begin with; the thought is to just purge until it’s done, baby.
I admit there’s a compelling argument there, and I am certainly adoping a version of that approach – albeit probably slower than most people would consider a truly vomitous pace. And this could just be momentary fatigue, but it may be that this burst that has fueled me for the last two-three weeks might not be enough to get me across the finish line with quality work. Can I force my way there? I am mighty close, and the final pages of a script tend to come most quickly with me. It has been far too long since I got to celebrate a finished feature screenplay – the first draft of my most recent script is dated at the end of May, 2011; and I’ve been mostly consumed by prose and re-writes since. Although goodness knows, for the last few new scripts I have barely even let myself celebrate.
That might be a nice course to reverse. I have good, incredibly supportive people in my life who know what an accomplishment it is to finish a script. They would want to celebrate with me, even if it’s just going out for a simple toast. Maybe I ought to do that – finish this damn script, and then invite people to celebrate it with me.
After that – well, there are those two personal screenplays that have been so long in the works – both are maybe 60-70% drafted. In my dream world, I would actually get first drafts of both done this year, and thus be closer to the standard I used to hold myself to when it came to screenwriting pace. Do I have that much vomit in me? I guess we’ll see.
Took my first crack at landing an actor-y thing to do for 2013 last night. The whole experience was very modern – I applied for a role in a low-budget feature through the website LetItCast.com.
I didn’t have to drive to a stage or studio for an audition; I didn’t even meet anyone involved in the production. The site listed an overview of the project and a breakdown of the characters by age/gender/type. They provided instructions for what they would like to see – in most cases this will be “sides” (aka an excerpt) from the script itself, but for this one they wanted a monologue, preferably from a list of playwrights whose work they viewed as in the intended realm of the movie. And the idea is, we just film our audition from wherever we are, and then upload it using their provided preferred technical specifications; which are very broad and easily-accessible to just about any equipment you might own.
More and more I believe that people who want to work in this business need a little minimal cross-training when it comes to recording a piece of video. Even if you don’t want to be a director or DP there are simply too many opportunities where these skills can benefit you to ignore it completely. Thankfully, consumer-grade equipment and software has become robust and user-friendly enough that most people who have at least used computers regularly throughout their lives should be able to film a monologue and have their face adequately framed and lit for something like LetItCast without having to go to film school or drop thousands of dollars in order to do it. Just pay enough attention to recognize the most common media file formats and what formats are generated by the equipment and software you have, find an instructional video on basic “3-point” lighting (lots of these on YouTube), and you’re already ahead of the crowd.
I wanted to give myself the best chance possible; so I asked my friend, the super over-qualified Matt Enlow, if he would shoot my monologue. He owns a better camera/lens than I do and is used to shooting in his apartment. The monologue was only two minutes, but I wasn’t sure how long to allow for the whole process. I figured an hour-ish would be safe for set-up and multiple takes, and that there might be some extra time for computer-sweetening afterwards.
But even Matt – who lives and breathes New Media both in his day job and his passion project making that web series I keep mentioning – was kind of blown away by the production cycle. I arrived at his place; he already had his tripod up. He pulled a poster off the wall where I was going to stand, and turned on a couple of regular home lamps. We did a little futzing with which-jacket-should-I-wear/glasses-or-no-glasses, that sort of thing, but basically he was ready to shoot me in about five minutes. Then he hit just hit a button and I started talking, and he cut two minutes later.
He said – kind of surprised – “I think we’ve got it”. I was immediately a little doubtful, just because every actor is insecure and when doing a shot that long there’s all kinds of time to make weird faces or trip over a moment. And who knows – Matt’s a great guy and cares about quality work (we did several takes of every tiny role I’ll be playing in Squaresville this season), but maybe it was Sunday night and he didn’t feel the need to grind too hard at it. Or maybe (I guarantee 90%+ of actors secretly come back to this thought on a daily basis) he thought I was so uselessly incompetent that direction or extra takes weren’t going to do me any good. But he seemed very convinced, so he popped out the memory card and put it in the computer for us to review.
Upload of the raw video to his laptop took about six minutes. We reviewed it and, while I do make some weird faces along the way, I agreed that it seemed surprisingly solid for a single take, and that searching for an ephemeral extra bit of quality might just waste our time and deaden my performance. So we went with that single take.
He trimmed the beginning and end, added fade-ins and out-s, applied a basic color balancing filter and then cleaned out some of the ambient noise. All that took maybe ten minutes in FinalCutPro.
Then he output it to the requested format and that was it. In a half-hour we had made my audition movie; soup-to-nuts.
I completed the audition application there and immediately set it to upload to the LetItCast website. Then we took a walk to go to dinner, which was of course my treat because karma, damn it.
By the time dinner was done, I saw an e-mail on my phone that confirmed the site had received the audition video. We went back to his apartment, I verified the upload, approved the video, and gave them permission to send it to the producers.
This morning, when I woke up, I saw another e-mail, letting me know that the producers had viewed my audition and inviting me to subscribe to e-mail alerts whenever they finalize casting for any roles on the project. Technology.
Maybe I get the role, probably I don’t. That’s how it works. But I found the whole process sort of marvelous and fun – instead of fighting traffic and the clock, having a heart attack over finding parking, waiting around in a hallway staring at my competition for two hours, and turning over one expensive headshot after another in order to act in front of strangers for two stressful minutes; I got to make a movie with my friends, in an environment where I was comfortable, for basically nothing.
I think this may have the potential to show us off better as actors. Best yet – the website doesn’t charge me for a membership, or to submit; Hollywood is full of pay-to-play garbage and this was a welcome exception.
Fascinating start to the acting experience for the year.
I found out that my screenplay The Hatchling has advanced to the semi-final round in the 2012 Screenplay Festival in the Comedy category. Since I wrote it to be a comedy, that is encouraging. Screenplay Festival has been around since 2002, an early “Honorable Mention” awardee was Iris Yamashita, who later wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. According to their website, Semi-Finalists represent roughly the top 25% of submissions. Finalists and Winners should be announced in the vicinity of March/April.
I never did contests/festivals in version 1.0 of my screenwriting career, and these days I’m ineligible for a lot of them because of my prior sale/options and WGA status; but it’s educational delving into the world of them now. It would be nice to bank a little money by winning; but as with my strategy for publishing short stories, it’s really more about exposure and making connections with the right people. It’s damn hard to get people to answer the phone in Hollywood. One way around this is to do something that makes them call you instead.
Major transitions this week. First – I had a birthday; and, according to my health insurer, an “important” one. I don’t think it will help to tell them that I’m in much better shape now than I was when I enrolled; which doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
Also, we “closed” Much Ado – which I put in quotes because we actually will revive the production for a pair of performances in La Mirada in November. There will be a couple of replacement actors, and I think we’re all a touch freaked about keeping our lines in memory, but the professionalism of this crew keeps me from being worried. When the time comes to re-convene and do our tech run-through, we’ll see how much cramming needs doing and go cram it.
Last and most significant, I’ve made a soft move back into Los Angeles. I have spent the last few years in Orange County; a move which made sense when I made it, but with a couple of LA-based projects close to fruition that could stand my presence, and with me just plain missing Hollywood and proximity to my friends within it, I had been looking for awhile for a chance to try this shift. And then a friend offered up a sublet right in one of my favorite neighborhoods and that was that. My mailing address is still O.C., and I’ll be there on weekends, but since Monday night I’ve been back in Hollywood and I’m loving it. Hopefully we can make this stick. I even have an audition tonight – so we’re going to see what it’s like in LA.
I had a great, long dinner with my producer friend on 7 Red last night, as we tried to break the new climax and ending our director is seeking. It’s not too much change in terms of story, but an adjustment in where all the final pieces fall, along with a mechanism that supports a few more turns of the screw on the way there. It will be labor-intensive, and it will mean a lot of new pages, but I always find new pages far easier to write with a script and characters I already know.
We closed out El Coyote on Beverly Boulevard, drinking margaritas and eating steamed tacos and looking at our playing pieces in every angle and configuration imaginable for well over three hours. I love evenings like this because I feel more like a screenwriter when actively-wrestling with something.
There’s a caper element to this script, which illustrates one of those hidden Golden Means we’re always trying to achieve in scripts. In Writer English: You’ve got your protagonist (the one seeking something), and the antagonist (the one who seeks something that sets them in opposition to the protagonist). In a caper, the protagonist usually has some multifaceted scheme they are trying to work, while the antagonist is either playing defense (Ocean’s 11), working a contrary scheme of their own (The Grifters), or completely-ignorant that a scheme is unfolding around them (The Sting).
Each option has its own perks and challenges – in the case of 7 Red our antagonist is making moves but they are fundamentally playing defense. So in a climax of this nature you want to throw in a variety of ingredients like:
-Moves by the protagonist that show off the clever and interlocking nature of their scheme beginning to work.
-Moves by the protagonist that show off their ability to anticipate how the antagonist will behave.
-Moves by the antagonist that throw off the protagonist’s scheme, providing suspense and forcing them to improvise
-Moves by the antagonist that SEEMINGLY throw off the protagonist’s scheme, but are actually clever feints drawing the antagonist into a trap.
-Random twists of fate and physics that make everything come harrowingly-close to spinning completely out of control.
If you think back on movies you enjoy in this genre, you’ll probably see a lot of mixtures like this. You don’t want it to be just one. Maybe someone has written all these down before – I don’t know, but I had to figure it out on my own.
Audiences are most-satisfied when, by the end of the story, they at least can work out from available evidence nearly-all, if not all, of what happened and which of the above categories most-accurately describes the happenings. You can tell them beforehand, let them experience it as it happens, or show the result and explain it afterwards. Sometimes you do all of them – any approach can work, and when it comes to which you use, it’s often going to come down to feel. And as before you ideally use a mixture of them to get across all the information you need.
There is a threshold, though, which, once crossed, leads to disaster, and I think it comes in the area of those moves and counter-moves between the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s the old “I knew you would do this, and so I did this, but knowing YOU would probably KNOW I would do this, I also did THIS! HA HA!”
I think people understand the existence of master chess players who can think twelve moves ahead, and even admire them to a certain extent. But my general feeling about movie audiences is that – as I said for this genre – they like to have a shot at understanding how it worked, and they don’t want the process of understanding it to be un-cinematic.
What do I mean by un-cinematic? The usual stuff – excessive flashbacks, idle scenes of people talking a lot about things that already happened. Stuff that is dangerous in any genre or situation. You see, it’s not that the scheme you came up with is smart that is rubbing the audience the wrong way (remember – they’re smarter than you think), it’s that sharing your work with them resulted in bad screenwriting.
Just look back at Ocean’s 11, which had surprises, reversals, seeming-accidents and real accidents, and a few mid-and post-game explanations and flashbacks, but kept it all brisk and fast and funny while mixing it up. Whereas Ocean’s 12 ended with a lot of flashbacks and talking about this one secret component to the plan which we were never shown. Not that the movie was triumphing up to then, but it made for a pretty sputtering end.
So the trick is to tie enough knots that the audience appreciates the work you did, but not tie too many that you can’t unravel the thing without resorting to bad screenwriting. How many twists are ideal? How much of the above ingredients can the stew hold? The answer is never defined enough that you can write it down, is it? But after you’ve watched enough movies you know when there’s too much or too little, don’t you?